Monday, May 27, 2013

My Own Memorial Day 2013

As we as we are celebrating this Memorial Day in these United States of America, as we are honoring our brave soldiers who served in foreign lands, I want to add reflecting and praying for those men and women who became heroes by default.  I am thinking of those whom I wrote about in one of my last blogs, those who lost their lives working in concentration camps.  We often hear about the 6,000 Jews who perished in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Buchenwald or Sachsenhausen.  It was the most cruel and senseless crime ever committed on humans.  None-the-less let us not forget the other captives, who came from more than 21 countries who died working in the dark tunnels of the Kohnstein mountain.  They didn’t commit any crime; they became prisoners of war, many of them educated engineers and highly qualified men who were used by a brutal regime.  Or the many other humans who have fallen into slavery or tyranny at the mercy of bullies and dictators.  All of them had families, lovers, children, who often didn’t know how their loved one died.  They also deserve to be mourned and celebrated for their sacrifices.

If God listened to the prayers of men, all men would quickly have perished: for they are forever praying for evil against one another.
~ Epicurus

I build this small memorial in my back yard

 It is my own reflection as I am listening to the patriotic songs and hear stories of valor and service.  Wherever men and women give their lives for a higher purpose, they are worthy of our admiration. 

Monday, May 20, 2013

Stranded at one of the Far-corners of Europe

While visiting my brother in Spain, we took one excursion to the Southern edge of the Iberian Peninsula which is the British territory of Gibraltar.  Beside the military operations it contains the famous rock of Gibraltar which rises over 400 meters above sea level. 

We went there on a breezy day in May and since I wanted to see into Africa, we decided to take the cable car to the top of the mountain.  In the early 12th century, the Southern Iberian Peninsula was conquered by the Mores who left fortresses and castles including one on the lower part of the Rock of Gibraltar.  We were able to see it as we ascended in cable car. 
When we arrived at the top we were greeted by the rare Barbary Macaques, the only free living “monkeys” in Europe.  Even though they have their feeding places, they like to sneak treats from the tourists.  They jump unto the cars or buses and playfully show off their tailless bodies.  We were watching one older Barbary enjoy a box of crackers, while a younger monkey was eyeing him and trying to get his share.  Anytime the younger animal got close to the older one he would hiss at the young creature and scare him off. 

We went to the observation plateau and marveled at the beautiful scenery below and above where seagulls took pleasure in the currents of the wind coming up the mountain.  I was thinking of “Jonathan Livingston Seagull’s story.”  While I was trying to take a picture of a seagull above my head I notice that my balance wasn’t so steady, considering that I was standing with pretty much only air around me.  The wind was blowing hard and I had to hold on to the railing of the observatory.


After we had seen all the pretty flowers, saw some more monkeys and took pictures of the “other continent” on the other side of the strait of Gibraltar ( the separation is only about 20 miles, and on that clear day we were able to see the mountains of Morocco) we decided to take the cable car back down.   We were lucky as one car was just leaving and the operator even opened the door again for us, only to learn a few minutes later that they had to close down the operation due to high winds.  We were told to wait in the coffee shop for a bus to transport us down the mountain.  Since all the roads up the mountain are only one-way, we had to wait 3 hours for our turn, with the number 3 printed on our tickets.  While waiting we enjoyed free coffee, water and finally were given a certificate that showed us being present at the “Top of the Rock.”

Even though we were never in any danger, I was very glad when I had solid ground again under my feed when we arrived safely by bus at the bottom of the cable care station.

Monday, May 13, 2013

How can a Thousand-year-old City Re-invent Herself?

I was born in Nordhausen, a city in the state of Thueringen (Thuringia) in Germany. When I lived there we always would refer to the Harz-Mountains which are north of the city.  I lived there when Nordhausen was part of the DDR or East-Germany.  My dad owned a Jewelry store which he had built based on his training as a watchmaker and his drive to be a business owner.  When in 1961, he was notified, that he would have to surrender his ownership to the state, he decided to close the doors himself, and leave his business as well as all other personal property, except for a few suitcases, behind.  With four children in tow he and my mother managed to bring us all safely through Berlin into the Western sector where we registered as refugees. 


For many years I had dreams, roaming around my hometown.  We had left quite suddenly, not telling anyone, leaving our friends and neighbors without a clue.  At the time I didn’t understand why we had to leave. Then on August 13, 1961, a wall was built in Berlin, which created a more permanent separation between the two countries. I could only be grateful to my parents to have the foresight to bring us to freedom and give us a better future.


In the meantime, I have gone back to Nordhausen several times.  First, I just wanted to see all familiar places, like the house we lived in, walk the well-known streets, and see the locations where we played.  I even could share some cherries from the garden my parents cultivated with my children.


Nordhausen is in many ways a significant city.  It was first mentioned in a document on May 13, 927.  A distinctive landmark is a Roland statue, which represents a middle-age knight and symbolizes freedom, power, and jurisdiction.  He is holding a sword in one hand and the coat of arms with a crowned black eagle in the other.  Since the statue was one of the few remaining landmarks surviving WWII, we celebrated in the 1950s each year the Roland with a parade. 


Nordhausen was over many hundred years an important economic region of the South-Harz Mountain.  The city experienced many devastating catastrophes including fires, famines, and the difficult years of the plague. None of them were as bad as the damage of the bombing at the end of WWII.  With the destruction of 85% of the city the whole city image was changed.  Not until the re-unification of Germany in 1989 came the city to new life.  In 2004 Nordhausen became the center of the “2nd Thüringer Landesgartenschau.”  Through this event Nordhausen was transformed into its new glory with flowers, landscaping and restoring many of the old ruins into beautiful works of art.


Nordhausen was once known for its tobacco industry, especially chewing tobacco. It is still famous for the distilled spirit “Nordhäuser Doppelkorn” which is made from fermented rye, containing more than 37% alcohol. 

Nordhausen has one other secret: during WWII it became the center of the V-2 rocket production.  In the nearby underground tunnels of the Kohnstein the Nazis used slave laborers and prisoners to build their defense.  Statistics mention that during the last years of the war 60,000 prisoners from over 21 nations were working day and night underground of Mittelbau-Dora in the tunnels never seeing daylight.  About one third of these captives were either killed or died of malnutrition and the work circumstances.  Some of these laborers came from other concentration camps to speed up the production and to replace the dying.  Today, the former crematorium is the center of the museum for the Mittelbau-Dora Concentration Camp.


I believe that the city had to pay a high price for the atrocities happening before their very eyes (maybe hidden in the underground of the Kohnstein Hills).  To restore this, the city faced not only the bombings of WWII but also 40 years (from 1949-1989) under the East-German regime. 


When I met my class mates at the class reunion on May 4, 2013, I became very inspired that I saw people who were not only survivors but even at their advanced age believed in their city.  They were people who still had spunk and were proud to have lived through it all by reinventing themselves many times, by adjusting to new work environments, different ownerships, and even retraining in a different branch of occupation.  They didn’t take anything for granted but rather were willing to work hard and to roll up their sleeves many times, just like their parents did after their city was destroyed.


Even though I didn’t live there for the past 52 years, I feel like I have taken away the same willing spirit in me.  We sure can never forget where we came from. 


Monday, May 6, 2013

A look in the Rearview Mirror

This past weekend I participated in a class-reunion with my elementary school friends.   It was the second of such gatherings of which I didn’t make the first one since it happened in Germany.  This time, I made special arrangements to participate in the meeting which took place in my home town Nordhausen in Thüringen.

I was part of that class b from 1955 until 1961.  I loved going to school, and I remember many of my schoolmates’ names, but after 52 years I certainly couldn’t remember my colleges’ faces.  Of the almost 40 children in that original class (many were added later while some went to a different parallel class), 32 had gathered around the “Roland”  which is the symbol of the 1,000 year-old city Nordhausen and represents its power, freedom and jurisdiction.

I am using the analogy of the rearview mirror, one of which we cannot avoid to look into when driving through life.  In the past I was so much looking forward and sideways, focusing on the ideals and avoided looking back because of some difficult times.  For one thing I didn’t feel proud of my hometown, country or my heritage.  Allowing myself to look back and rebuild friendships and relationships has enriched my life tremendously.

The class reunion has brought me one more step ahead. 

From the “Roland” we walked to the Tabakspeicher which is an old tobacco storehouse turned museum dedicated to craft trades, commerce, industries, and archeology.  In the small theater we watched an original news-reel from 1956.  One of our classmates is a volunteer at the museum and was knowledgeable about all the exhibitions.  At the end we had coffee and cake in the large meeting room.  That gave us the first opportunity to warm up to new/old relationships. 

From there we were guided by a professional tour guide through the historical old town.  When we arrived on the outskirts of the city wall along “Neuer Weg,” we learned of a legendary story which is symbolized by a cross in the old city wall.

As the story goes, in the original home across from the location lived a couple who has been waiting for many years for the return of their son.  Junior had gone out into the world and unbeknownst to his parents acquired a few riches.  He wanted to surprise his parents the next morning by sneaking into the house.  The old folks were frightened by the nightly invasion and killed the intruder, only to learn the next morning that they had killed their own son.  Upon his burial they requested to add the stone cross into the city wall.
~ Prof. und Heimatforscher E.G. Förstemann, Nordhausen (1788-1859)

Following the wall down the "Lesserstiege" and across the Rautenstrasse, we started to climp up the hill to the Petersberg.  There we greeted our old school which in the meantime changed its name back to “Petersbergschule” (in our days it was called Theo-Neubauer Schule).  From there we walked down “Am Petersberg,” Töpferstraβe and marveled at the new shopping center being build across the Blasikirchplatz.  Along the way our guide had all kinds of interesting information about the history and the people of our hometown.

I believe that the guided city tour was interesting for many of us since not everyone resides yet in Nordhausen. When we finally arrived at the restaurant “Alt Nordhausen” im Aldendorf, we were ready for dinner or at least a drink.

The rest of the evening passed with testimonies, anecdotes and even a presentation in the original language of Nordhausen which is special dialect related to “Thüringisch.”  By that time some of us had drunk some of the “Nordhäuser Doppel Korn,” and we all had a good laugh.

The past is like your rear-view mirror, you look back just to make sure you're okay, but in the end, you're still in your car moving forward.

When I look now at my 2nd grade photo I am not only looking for names but rather trying to figure out the faces which have grown old like mine and look forward to put a story with at least a few of them.