The Dom of Bautzen

October 31, 2011

In the city of Bautzen in the Saxony region of Germany stands St. Peter’s Cathedral.  It was built between 1456 and 1463, and had major restorations in 1634 after much of the town was destroyed by fire.

Exterior of St. Peter's Church in Bautzen

What I find most intriguing about this church is that it is shared by Catholics and Protestants.  Since 1530, the church has been home to two different congregations.  The church is divided into two halves, each of which has its own alter, pulpit, organ, and pews.  The two organs are sonically matched to one another, allowing them to be played together.  The separate hours of services are set by a contract made between the two groups in the year 1583 and which is still in effect today.

gan in St. Peter's Church -- Protestant Portion

Organ in St. Peter's Church (Protestant Portion)

St. Peter’s is the oldest Catholic-Lutheran shared church in Germany.  Shared churches are known as “Simultaneum”, where public worship is conducted by adherents of two or more religious groups.  They became common in some parts of Europe in the wake of the Protestant Reformation.  In Bautzen, an Evangelical Lutheran started preaching in the church in 1523, which eventually lead to the sharing of the church by two different congregations.

This arrangement hasn’t been without some tension.  There is a railing about 1 meter high between the two halves of the church.  This railing is a diminutive replacement of its predecessor which was about 4 meters high (12 feet) and which was considered necessary in tenser times.  The Catholics were expelled from the church for a short time in the Bohemian Uprising on 1620.

I find it inspiring that in this town in the former East Germany, two different religious groups have been worshiping collaboratively in very close proximity for almost 500 years, while the same groups have clashed violently elsewhere (e.g. Northern Ireland).  Apparently religious tolerance is possible and sustainable.  I think they set a moving example for others to follow.


No good deed goes unpunished

October 30, 2011

We arrived in La Spezia on the north-west coast of Italy in a rain storm at 5:30 PM.  A British couple that we’d met the night before had recommended a camping site in an industrial area near the port.  As best they could figure, it was on land used by the local ambulance service (there are ambulances and attendants on call there), and which is also rented out to locals to store their RVs.  They also allow overnight camping by donation.  We needed a base to explore Cinque Terre, and this seemed like a good one.

On arrival I stopped at the small office (more of a shack really, about 2 meters by 2 meters with a small counter and 1 computer) to register my passport with the young man in the office.  After finding a spot to park and enjoying happy hour with Diane (1 beer and a snack), I returned to the office to see if I could charge my laptop because no electricity is provided in the parking area.  By this point it was dark, the wind was really howling and the rain was pelting down.  Lightening had begun to flash and Diane was worried about the weather.  When I left the RV she asked, “How long will you be?”, and I said, “Just a few minutes.”  On my way to the office I waved to the ambulance attendants who were outside battening down the hatches, securing some of their temporary structures against the howling winds.  They waved back.

The office was unattended when I arrived.  It was difficult to open the door because of the strong winds.  The rain was blasting down in sheets, ricocheting off the roof of a covered area nearby containing an old ambulance.  I waited for a long time.  The wind was whipping and the door began to shake in its frame.  I wondered if the shack would stand up to the elements.  I speculated whether the young man I’d met at check-in had gone home for the evening, or was just hanging out with the ambulance attendants somewhere.  After about 15 minutes of waiting, I questioned whether the office and gate were unmanned after a certain hour.

Outside the storm was getting worse.  I was starting to worry about how the S&M Motel would stand up to a night of this.  An RV appeared at the front gate.  He honked for the gate to be opened.  Through the torrent, I could see that he was staring at me, wondering why I wasn’t doing so.  I think he thought that I worked there.  He wasn’t prepared to leave the warmth of his RV to brave the storm, nor was I willing to go out and speak to him (although I did briefly consider it).  After a minute or so he backed up and disappeared from view.

A short while later another RV arrived.  Same story.  He started honking, starting at me through the window.  I wondered why no one was coming to assist, and thought perhaps they had gone home or were out on an emergency call.  After a couple more minutes, another RV (or perhaps the first one returning) joined him waiting at the gate.  In an effort to be helpful, I reached behind the desk and pressed the button to open the gate.  Both RVs entered and I closed the gate behind them.

I continued waiting.  I realized that there was a plug-in behind the counter and I thought perhaps I could start charging my laptop while I passed the time.  I stepped around the counter to plug in my laptop.  At that moment I saw two men running through the torrential rain toward the office.

Can you see what’s coming?  I certainly didn’t.  I thought that perhaps they were the owners of the RVs that had just arrived.  Or maybe the staff that should have been manning the office.

They burst through the door yelling at me in Italian.  The first guy was squat, thick, and balding and was wearing a black hoodie (let’s call him ‘Sluggo’).  The other was a young guy wearing the reflective orange uniform of an ambulance attendant.  Sluggo raced around the counter, grabbed me, and pushed me up against the wall.  He was very agitated, shouting at me in Italian.  He grabbed my half-empty backpack containing my laptop, minus the cord which I’d just plugged in to the wall.  It occurred to me at that point that they thought I was a thief, and so I tried to calm them down.  I raised my hands and, because I speak no Italian, I repeated the simplest English words I could think of that they might understand, “It’s OK.  No problem.”  Sluggo was having none of it.  He threatened to punch me.  At this point, I realized that things had the potential to go very wrong.  I offered no resistance because I’d done nothing wrong.  He reached into my jacket pockets to see whether I had taken anything.  Nothing there but my iPhone and reading glasses.  He checked my backpack but found only my laptop.

Keeping with my theme of simple and honest, I said “My name is Patrick King.  I am from Canada.”  They asked me for my passport.  I said, “It’s in my camper, with my wife” (I hoped the ‘wife’ part would make me seem more respectable).  I said that my passport information was, “in your computer”, because I had previously registered.

Sluggo pulled a cell phone from his pocket and dialed it.  I thought he was dialing the police.  Initially I figured this might be a good thing, having some cooler heads join the party, but then two things crossed my mind – that Italian police don’t have a reputation for being particularly honest or trustworthy, and that police everywhere tend to look out for their own (and presumably this would include other emergency response personnel like ambulance attendants).  Thankfully, it seemed that he was calling one of his buddies waiting outside to call the police (in case things took a turn for the worst), so at that point I realized that they figured the situation was under control.

While Sluggo was on the phone, I appealed to the younger guy, “Do you speak English?  Can we talk?”  They agreed.  I slowly lowered my hands and tried to explain, “I was waiting here for 15 minutes and no one came.  I wanted to charge my laptop.”  They spoke to me in Italian, and I could just make out that they were asking whether I had let the two campers in.  I said, “Yes.  They were waiting and honking the horn”, which I demonstrated in mime with the addition of a honking sound.   Again I said, “No one came.  And so I opened the gate.”  More chastising in Italian, presumably saying that I shouldn’t have done that.   I said, “I was trying to help.”  They asked in Italian whether the drivers had come to the office to register.  Surely that was going above and beyond the call of duty, and they didn’t expect that I should have registered them too!  I replied, “No, they didn’t”.  I then made out that they wanted me to go and get the newcomers and bring them back to the office.  I agreed, glad to get out of the confined and hostile space.

I walked back through the storm to our RV first.  I knocked on the door and told Diane, who was in the middle of making dinner, that, “Things didn’t go so well at the office.”  I said that, “I’d let two campers in through the gate without permission, and that they wanted me to bring the drivers.”  I didn’t want to worry her but I wanted her to know that something was up, in case things escalated.

I could see that a new camper had arrived beside ours, and so I knocked.  A German man answered the door, and I asked, “Do you speak English”.  Like many Germans he spoke a little, and so I asked him to come to the office to register.  He seemed to be delaying and so I asked, “5 minutes?” and he replied, “3 seconds.”  He joined me for the walk back through the rain and I explained that I didn’t work here, that I was from Canada, and that the men were angry with me that I’d let him through the gate.  They thought that I was a criminal.  I wanted him to know the situation and to have him on my side if things turned ugly.  He pointed out to me the other RV that arrived at the same time, and I knocked on this vehicle from France.  An older couple opened the door tentatively and they did not speak English so I used some terrible broken French to ask “Nouveau.  Arrivé.  Dix Minutes?”  I’m kind of embarrassed to admit that given that my mother was a French teacher, but it was all that my addled, adrenaline-charged brain could come up with.  They understood, and responded in the affirmative.  I said, “Registration”, to which they replied with a lot of rapid fire French, from which I deduced that they had already registered (and perhaps paid) and had just returned from a day trip to Pisa.  I said, “Merci”, and walked with the wet German to the office.

When we arrived, there was a third guy in the room, also wearing the uniform of an ambulance attendant.  Sluggo and the first guy began to speak with the German.  I spoke to the other guy, asking “Do you speak English?” and he replied, “Quite well”.  Excellent.  I started to explain what had happened, and he interrupted, “I know.”  I kept on anyhow, wanting to make sure that he heard my version of the events.  When the German was registered, I apologized and repeated that, “I was trying to help”.  The new guy said that, “They had had some problems here”, and presumably they had thought I was a thief.

I wondered what kind of thief would have taken the time to let RVs into the campground.  Like the Seinfeld episode when Kramer was telling his story about driving a bus while fending off a mugger and kicking him off “at the next stop”.  Incredulous, Jerry asked “You kept making all the stops?”, and Kramer replied, “Well, people kept ringing the bell!”  They kept honking, and so I opened the gate!  In hindsight it occurred to me that the ambulance attendants couldn’t hear the honks over the storm; I could barely hear them from 3 meters away.

I collected my stuff and the new guy said, “Did you want to charge your laptop?”  By this point, I was a bit hesitant to leave it with them, but I said, “Yes”, hoping it would mend some fences.  We plugged it in and I left it sitting on the counter.  I apologized for any problems and made a point of shaking each of their hands before I left the office.

I returned to our RV, trying to remain cool and collected in front of Diane.  Eventually, in response to her questions, I told her what had happened.  She didn’t say much, but had the slightest of smiles on her face.  I couldn’t make out whether the cause was nervousness or humour, or perhaps the Italian wine she’d been drinking while making dinner.  I wasn’t very hungry, but I enjoyed Diane’s excellent meal of pan seared pork, steamed rice, and sautéed white beans, which was prepared during the two tempests.  I retrieved my laptop an hour later and wrote this blog, with the events still fresh in my mind — a kind of private therapy while my wife is sleeping.


Storm in Tuscany

October 26, 2011

We arrived in the city of La Spezia last evening.  It’s on the west coast of Italy, a couple of hours north of Pisa in the region of Tuscany.  Last night, this area was hit by a huge storm.  Nine people are confirmed dead and six more are missing.  Several villages were hit by mud slides or flooding.  We are safe and we are grateful.

Yesterday afternoon, we traveled north up the coast from the city of Lucca.  It was raining hard but the driving was manageable.  We followed the coast road and a strong surf was visible on the beaches.  At one point we crossed a bridge and could see the swollen river below.  It was brown with runoff and filled with debris.  People were frantically trying to save their boats moored on the sides of the river.  We were passed by several emergency vehicles heading to the scene.

We arrived in La Spezia in heavy rain.  We found a camping place near the port and hunkered down for the evening.  The rain came in torrents.  At one point, the water was cascading over the sides of the S&M Motel like a waterfall.  The thunder clapped and the storm raged.  It rained hard all night.  Both we and the S&M Motel survived undamaged.

Not so fortunate were the citizens of many nearby communities.   We came here to hike the famous Cinque Terre (‘Five Lands’), a 12 kilometer trail along the Ligurian Coast (‘Costa Ligure of Levante’), a rough stretch of Italian coastline that passes through five villages that are so unique and picturesque as to be deemed a Unesco World Heritage Site and to be protected by a national park.

Last night’s storm devastated this region, and in particular two of the villages along the Cinque Terre — Vernazza and Monterosso.   More information and video are available here.

The trail is closed for the foreseeable future as rescue efforts continue.  Most of the roads out of La Spezia are blocked, as are the train tracks, so we’ll probably wait here for another day or two then move on.

I sit in a bar watching the news with the local people, drinking wine, and writing.  Every day above the ground is a good day.


If it’s Tuesday, we must be in Florence

October 26, 2011

With the eclectic variety (and occasional delay) of our blog postings, you may be wondering where we are currently and where we’ve been to-date. Here is a graphical update on our progress.

Europe map marked up with our journey (read on for text synopsis)

Synopsis – We flew in to Vienna (Austria) and traveled W via Salzburg to Munich (Germany). We headed N to Berlin to drop our friends S&M at the airport, then spent a week in the central German Province of Thuringia. We returned to Berlin to run the marathon, the headed S to Munich again for Oktoberfest. From there, we headed NE to Schwarznausslitz, a small German village near the Czech and Polish borders where we were the guests of our friend’s gracious cousin and his family. From there we made a cold swing down through the capitals of Eastern Europe – Prague (Czech Republic), Bratislava (Slovakia), Zagreb (Croatia), and Ljubljana (Slovenia). Recently, we’ve toured in an arc across Italy from the NE, swinging down and across the center, and are now starting N again up the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea.

All is well, and we’re hoping for warmer weather!


Oktoberfest!

October 22, 2011

Welcome to the home of the $8 pretzel and beers big enough to sprain your wrist. The ultimate getaway for the beer lover, Oktoberfest is a huge spectacle. It wasn’t what I had expected — it was better! Oktoberfest is a dynamic blend of beer gardens, dinner theatre, a costume party, and a carnival, all mixed together with a history of rich tradition.

Patrick and Diane in front of Oktoberfest welcome sign

Oktoberfest began in 1810, when Crown Prince Ludwig was married to Princess Terese of Saxony-Hildburghausen. The people of Munich were invited to attend the festivities held on the fields in front of the city gates to celebrate the happy event. The fields have been named Theresienwiese (“Theresa’s meadow”) in honor of the Crown Princess ever since, although the locals have since abbreviated the name simply to “Wies’n”, a term that they also use to refer to Oktoberfest itself. The festival was eventually prolonged and moved ahead to September to take advantage of better weather conditions.

Oktoberfest is a 16 to 18 day beer festival held annually in Munich, Bavaria, Germany running from late September to the first weekend in October. It the world’s largest fair and an important part of Bavarian culture, having been held since 1810 (202 times less 24 when it was canceled due to cholera epidemics, inflation, or war). Even better, starting this year, all beer tents were non-smoking.

The Wies’n is a huge paved area (103 acres) located near Munich’s center and is filled with midway rides and food stands. On either side of the main thoroughfare are 14 large ‘tents’ (each the size of an ice hockey arena) and 20 smaller tents. The tents, though impressive, are non-permanent structures which are constructed for and only used during the festival. Inside each of the tents are hundreds of tables jammed with thousands of people (including yours truly) drinking, eating, and singing their hearts out to the strains of live bands. Each of the tents has a unique flavour, with some more traditional and others more modern. In total there are approximately 100,000 seats for beer lovers to fill, and yet it’s still hard to get one.

Overlook of Oktoberfest tent with patrons

Overlook of our Oktoberfest 'tent'

Each year over 6.5 million visitors attend Oktoberfest, drinking over 7 million litres of beer (someone must not be drinking their share because my table drank a lot more than that!) In support of this massive beer bash are over 1000 toilets and 900 meters of urinals.

Many people, including a lot of tourists, sport traditional Bavarian clothes, lederhosen (leather pants) for the men and dirndl dresses for the women. During Oktoberfest (and even at other times of year) these traditional outfits can be seen being worn (and can be purchased) throughout Munich.

Women in Dirndle Dresses

Women in Dirndl Dresses

Only beer which is brewed within the city limits of Munich is allowed to be served at Oktoberfest. There are problems each year with young people who overestimate their ability to handle large amounts of brew. Many forget that Oktoberfest beer has 5.8 to 6.3% alcohol and a high sugar content (compared to an average of 5.2% alcohol and low sugar content in regular German beer), and they pass out. These drunk patrons are referred to as ‘Bierleichen’ (German for ‘beer corpses’).

Guy throwing up behind my friends
The guy throwing up behind my friends

After an unsuccessful Oktoberfest foray the night before, where we were unable to secure a seat in the packed main tents and instead drank a beer in the outdoor seating of a small satellite tent where a stranger threw up under the table behind my friends, we were more prepared and committed for the next evening’s sortie. We arrived in mid-afternoon and established our position at one of the prized tables in the unreserved seating areas of a popular tent. It is necessary to maintain one’s station and defend it against the waitresses who attempt to pack more people onto their tables in an effort to inflate their revenues, and from latecomers who troll the rough wooden floors of the hall seeking a seat. It also requires significant stamina as our beer drinking began around 3 PM and continued unabated for over 7 hours!

Diane and Patrick drinking beer

After an over-priced and unsatisfying meal of white sausage (Weisswurst) and sauerkraut shared with a friend, the band, seated on a large pedestal in the center of the tent, started playing the classic Oktoberfest tunes and a few new favorites. We stood on the benches more than we sat, pressing the flesh with the people on the tables behind us in a careful balancing act (kind of like an elevated mosh pit in lines). We belted out German songs we didn’t understand with people we didn’t know. For one night we relaxed and got silly with strangers.

Patrick looking silly

Most of the German songs are silly pop tunes from obscure bands, or old drinking ditties. Things that are catchy and easy to remember for singing along. They also sing some English songs, the variety and quality of which will give you an idea of what the German songs are like – Living Next Door to Alice (Smokie, 1976), I Will Survive (Gloria Gaynor, 1979), Country Roads (John Denver, 1971), Y.M.C.A. (Village People, 1979), Hey Baby (Margaret Cobb and Bruce Channel, 1961), Sweet Caroline (Neil Diamond), Mambo No. 5 (Lou Bega, who was actually born in Munich!)

The shortest song and the one you hear most frequently is called “Ein Prosit”. The song ends with everyone standing and drinking. It is sung about every 15 minutes in order to keep the patrons well lubricated. The lyrics (translated to English) are “A toast, a toast, to the coziness of it all. Repeat. One, Two, Three – Drink Up!” Apparently it has more meaning in German, evoking feelings of social acceptance, belonging, being cheery and leaving your troubles at the door.

Patrick being support by friends on the way home
We get by with a little help from our friends

After many litres of beer, I stumbled out of the tent after 10 PM for the lengthy walk and tram ride back to the other tent where we were staying. The next morning while sitting in the restaurant feeling pleased that I wasn’t feeling worse, I was greeted by a young woman who said, “hello”. I didn’t recognize her but politely responded in kind. She then turned to my wife Diane and said, “He doesn’t remember me, does he?”

We’d been warned by some people (German and others) that Oktoberfest was too touristy and that we’re more likely to be sitting with Japanese tourists than Germans. Although there were a lot of tourists, most of them were German tourists, and we had a good time. The whole event seemed very authentic, even more so after a couple of beers.

Patrick’s Note – Attending Oktoberfest was one of the things on my Dreams List (also known as a ‘bucket list’). With no idea how or when it might occur, I wrote it down several years ago and now it has happened. Dream Big!


Dachau

October 22, 2011

There are many memorials of war in Europe, monuments to its long and often violent history.  Dachau is the site of a former Nazi concentration camp which we visited with some trepidation.  It is located just 20 kilometers from the beer drinking revelry of Munich, but it is a very different and sobering experience.

The camp is now a permanent memorial to what happened there.  The perimeter fence, some guard towers and administrative buildings remain, as does the gas chamber/crematorium building.  All the original prisoner barracks (except the one for special prisoners) have been demolished but their foundations remain and there is a replica barrack for visitors to view.  Much of the camp is now open space, but there remains a sombre, eerie feeling to the place.  We were strongly affected by what we saw and what we learned at Dachau, and subsequently at Buchenwald concentration camp, and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin.

Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of German through entirely legal means on January, 30, 1933.  Germany was at that time a democracy.  Once the Nazis came to power they quickly moved to ruthlessly suppress all real or potential opposition.  On February 27th the Reichstag (parliamentary building) was set on fire.  It wasn’t proven definitively who did it, but it was blamed on an individual communist who was in the building at the time.  Using fears of communism to justify his actions, within 24 hours Hitler suspended many of the German people’s basic rights (free speech, freedom of association, free press, etc.)  He then quickly rounded up all of his political opponents and moved them to camps for re-education.

First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out for me.
Pastor Martin Niemoller (1892 – 1984)

Why did the German people stand for this?  After World War I concluded with the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was required to pay onerous (some say impossible) reparations to the victors (mainly England and France).  The German economy struggled and the German government printed more money eventually leading to hyper-inflation.  The life savings of most Germans were wiped out.  Unemployment was very high and the people were desperate for change.  Hitler was a charismatic speaker and propagandist who billed his as the ‘party of action’.  He identified scapegoats to blame for the problems (e.g. communists and Jews).  He said that he would restore Germany to its former greatness.  It was a message with appeal to distressed Germans.

Hitler made no secret of his racist views.  He believed that ‘Aryans’ (purportedly a master race of people of Northern European descent) were the superior race, that the Slavic peoples were inferior and should serve the Aryans, and that Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and the disabled should be exterminated.  Unfortunately, most people did not believe he would follow through with this, and chose instead to focus on the more appealing aspects of his message.

Dachau was the first Nazi concentration camp.  It opened in March 1933 within 5 weeks of Hitler’s rise to power on the site of a closed ammunition factory.  The camp was originally intended to holding German and Austrian political prisoners and Jews, but in 1935 it also began to hold ordinary criminals.  In early 1937 the SS, using prisoner labor, initiated construction of a large complex of buildings on the grounds of the original camp. The construction was officially completed in mid-August 1938 after which the camp remained essentially unchanged.  During the war it came to also include other nationalities including French, Poles, Yugoslavs, Czechs, Russians, and also a few captured Americans (because they had Jewish sounding names).  Dachau remained in operation until it was liberated by the Americans in 1945, and was thus the longest running concentration camp of the Third Reich.

The name ‘concentration camp’ derives from the idea of concentrating the members of a group that is perceived to be undesirable in one place.  The Nazis did not invent this concept.  It had been used previously by the Americans, British, Cubans, and others.  The term did not originally refer to the death camps of the Nazis, but it has since become synonymous with them.

Dachau was branded a re-education camp, purportedly set up to re-educate people whose views were inconsistent with the Nazi philosophy.  The principle means of ‘re-education’ were torture and abuse.  The camp held primarily men and boys, but there were some women in subsidiary work camps.  It had 69 barrack buildings with one reserved for special prisoners (well-known or influential people and clergy who opposed the Nazi regime — at least 3,000 Catholic priests, deacons, and bishops were kept there) and one reserved for unethical medical experiments on prisoners.

Hallway of barrack for Special Prisoners

Barrack for Special Prisoners

Dachau was also one of what would eventually become 24 main distribution or registration camps.  Prisoners were brought into the concentration camp system, catalogued, and redistributed to one of over 1200 subsidiary camps throughout Europe.  Although many people were murdered here, it was not an extermination camp like Auschwitz, none of which were on German soil.  A gas chamber was installed at Dachau (we walked through it reluctantly), but it was apparently never used.  This camp was intended to be used for 20 years, after which time the Nazis believed that they would have long since conquered and stabilized Europe, and that no more re-education would be required.

Prisoners did forced labour in the camp or at one of its 200 subsidiary camps, 90 of which could be reached by marching on foot.  Those who could not work were murdered (or sent away to be murdered).  The main door of the camp still displays the words ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ meaning ‘work will liberate’, but there was no relationship between one’s work at the camp and their chances of being set free.  A small number of people were freed from Dachau, including some to celebrate Hitler’s birthday, on the condition that they never report what happened there.

Front Gate of Dachau with words "Arbeit Macht Frei"

Front Gate of Dachau

Prisoners arriving at Dachau were stripped of their belongings, identification, and very importantly for their captors, their names.  Each was given a number and wore coloured badges to identify their groups (e.g. political prisoner, Jew, homosexual, criminal).  They had no contract with relatives and were quickly lost in a system where they were moved to other camps without anyone knowing.

Conditions in the camp were atrocious.  The camp was designed for 5000 people but held 37,000 when it was liberated.  Barracks designed for 200 people held over 2000.  There were not adequate or sufficient toilet facilities.  Many people were sick with typhus and diarrhea.  Windows were not allowed to be opened so air quality was poor.  The food provided was the minimal to sustain life but of poor quality, and most of the good provisions originally intended for the prisoners were withheld by the hierarchy of guards and others who controlled the camp.  Most prisoners lost half of their body weight within months of entering the camp, if they lived that long.

Bunks in regular barrack of Dachau

Bunks in a regular barrack

These terrible conditions, in conjunction with the torture, abuse, and forced work resulted in the death of many people.  Those who couldn’t handle it any longer committed suicide, often with the encouragement of the guards.  Most commonly people committed suicide by running across the ‘death strip’ and into the wire surrounding the camp where they were shot.  Twice a day all prisoners (living and dead) were assembled on the parade square to be counted.  At the height of the epidemics, over 200 people were dying per day.

Crematorium at Dachau

Crematorium

There was a hierarchy of prisoners within the camp which was deliberately organized and manipulated by the guards.  Prisoners from the various groups (political prisoners, criminals, homosexuals, gypsies, etc.) were mixed together in the barracks to divide and conquer, with those who helped control the other prisoners per their captors wishes receiving special treatment (e.g. cigarettes, alcohol, access to prostitutes).  For the most part, the camp was run by the prisoners themselves.  There were always people willing to do the dirty jobs, including torturing and even murdering other prisoners, in return for special treatment and perhaps the hope that by currying the guards favour they might survive.  At the height of the epidemics in the camp, the guards would not even enter it, and yet the camp continued to function normally, run by the prisoners themselves.  I find this to be frightening example of how people, when faced with the breakdown of society, will act to save and benefit themselves even at the direct expense of others.  How quickly we can revert to survival of the fittest.

Dachau became the prototype for all other concentration camps.  All the Commandants of other concentration camps started here.  Dachau was known as the ‘School of Violence’. where the techniques of containment, forced labour, abuse, and murder were refined.

In the final months of the war, the conditions at Dachau became even worse. As Allied forces advanced toward Germany, the Germans began to move prisoners from concentration camps nearer the front to more centrally located camps. By doing so they hoped to prevent the liberation of large numbers of prisoners.  Transports from the evacuated camps arrived continuously at Dachau.  After days of travel with little or no food or water, the prisoners arrived weak and exhausted, often dead or near death.  The camp was constantly overcrowded and the hygiene conditions were beneath human dignity.

Due to the immaculate record keeping of the Germans, we know that 206,000 prisoners went through Dachau concentration camp.  Of these approximately 40,000 people died here or in the subsidiary work camps, mainly from disease, malnutrition, and suicide.

The Dachau Concentration Camp was liberated by the 45th Infantry Division of the United States Seventh Army on April 29, 1945.  The camp Commandant had fled two days before so two SS troopers officially surrendered the camp to the Americans, facilitated by a representative of the Red Cross.  The American soldiers, already hardened by war, were not prepared for what they found.  Outside the camp were 30 box cars full of dead bodies in advanced stages of decomposition.  More bodies were found around the camp and piled high in rooms adjacent to the gas chambers and crematorium.   The surviving prisoners were gaunt and sick.  Seeing this, some American soldiers killed an estimated 25 to 50 of the German guards.  These soldiers were later court-martialed but subsequently pardoned by General George S. Patton.  After liberation, the prisoners were forced to remain in the camp for a period of time for fear of them spreading disease among the general population.  Most of them had no money, homes, or families to return to.  Despite improved treatment, food, and sanitation, people continued to die in the camp at the rate of 50 to 80 per day.

U.S. troops guarding Dachau entrance after liberation

U.S. troops guarding Dachau entrance after liberation

Despite the many atrocities, some people did survive Dachau.  Although thousands survived as a result of liberation or the rare release or escape, there are no records of the names of the survivors.  Only 200 of them are known.  Each year, on April 20th, those who can face their painful memories are welcomed to return to Dachau.  There they can share with fellow survivors, remember those who died, and they also receive free health care from the German government.

Germany is very open and honest about this dark period of its history.  All school children are required to learn of this and most visit concentration camps on field trips.  There were several groups of teenagers there the day we visited.  I wondered what they thought.  How would I feel if my country or perhaps my grandparents had been part of something like this?

Note from Patrick – This posting took me a very long time to write, and not just due to the detail required.  I started and stopped many times thinking about what I was writing and why I was writing it.  For some reason, having learned this information, I thought it was important to share it.  Perhaps it is my small contribution to helping make sure that this never happens again.

Monument at Dachau with the words Never Again in several languages

Monument at Dachau with the words Never Again in several languages


What’s different about traveling this time?

October 20, 2011

We continue to notice differences between traveling in Europe and our last major trip through the Middle East, Africa, India, Nepal, and South-East Asia.  Here are some of them:

  • We’re traveling in developed countries, so we don’t have to be quite so self-reliant.  For example, we weren’t quite as particular about getting our clothes and gear exactly right this time, on the assumption that it would be relatively easy to acquire or replace things as needed.
  • We can almost always find an English speaker and most of the countries in Europe use the same alphabet as English.  This means that we can at least recognize and roughly pronounce many of the words.  We can write down what we’re looking for.  Things are much harder when you can’t understand any signs nor communicate with people.  We’re doing a lot less pointing and travel ‘charades’.
  • Because we’re traveling by vehicle, we could bring and also now have access to more stuff.  In addition to bringing an extra backpack full of clothes, we also brought hiking boots, gortex jackets and pants, a second (larger) laptop, an external hard drive for backup, etc.  We also have access to all the furnishings of the RV including dishes and utensils, a tool box, maps and reference books, etc.
  • We needed no vaccinations for this trip and we don’t need to take anti-malarial drugs.  Yeh!  We are not constantly at risk of catching a host of tropical and hygiene-related diseases.
  • Because we’re traveling in the Northern Hemisphere in the fall and don’t have a specific itinerary, we packed everything from beach wear (swimsuits and sandals) to hiking and skiing clothes (fleece, down and gortex jackets, gortex pants, gloves, toques, etc.)  Although we plan to head south, it will be colder on average and the weather more variable than on our previous trip.
  • We’re doing more driving ourselves rather than taking public transit everywhere.  Although arranging planes, buses, and trains is initially more work, once this is done, one can relax  and sleep, read, write, etc.  Our experience with driving in Europe so far is that it requires the constant attention of two people (driver and navigator), so there is less ‘down time’.
  • We don’t need to pack up every day.  It’s nice to have our clothes in a closet and drawers, albeit small ones.  We packed our backpacks hundreds of times last trip, a constant overhead activity.
  • Everything is much more expensive than in the Developing World where we spent the majority of the time on our last trip.  Surprisingly, if one stays away from the tourist traps, many things cost about the same (and some even less) than they do in Canada.  Gasoline is much more expensive.
  • We experienced minimal culture shock on arrival.  Austrians and Germans are just regular folks who like to smoke and to drink beer.  In our experience most have been very friendly, nothing like the stereotypical cold German personality.
  • So far, the focus seems to be more on the history and less on the culture.  In Africa and India, the current environment and present culture were overwhelming.  Here it more about the monuments of history, great works of art, and the food.
  • We are much less worried about crime and corruption.  Although there is still a small risk of minor crime (e.g. pickpocketing, automobile break-ins), the risk of crime is low.  Also, for the most part, the police and legal system can be trusted.
  • Things are clean, much more so than in the Developing World.  It appears that most public washrooms here are even cleaner than in Vancouver.
  • There is good Internet service available.  Fast and reliable, unlike the trials and tribulations we experienced on our last big trip (especially in Africa).
  • There is terrific public transit — trains, subways, street trams, and buses.  Far more transit than we’re used to at home.  All very clean and efficient.
  • We have a smart phone with us.  Not only does this allow us to stay in touch with family and friends, but there are many ‘apps’ that can help us while traveling (e.g. GPS navigation while walking through cities, downloadable travel guide books and walking tours, etc.)
  • We can drink water right out of the tap!  Paradoxically, despite the fact that we’re carrying a huge water tank with us in the RV, we seem to drink less water than we did when backpacking, where we were almost always carried a water bottle on our persons.
  • We can always find food!  Food is plentiful with restaurants, grocery stores, and shops almost everywhere.  Too plentiful for my rapidly expanding waist line!
  • There are public washrooms in most public spaces.  Although some charge a fee (shouldn’t defecation be added to the UN’s list of human rights?), there is no more need to plan our potty stops than during a day out at home.  Also, no more need for Diane to hoard toilet paper.