Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Hamburg, Bergen-Belsen, and Winsen

June 23, 2007--Hamburg

Ilka and Heiko live about 45 minutes out of Hamburg, in a very nice condo. It’s an up and down living space with a more or less circular staircase in the center from which rooms radiate out on each of three floors. The ground floor has a kitchen and living room dining room combination, including a backyard patio where Ilka has planted flowers. The second floor has three bedrooms: the master bedroom, the clothes closet (since, as Ilka says, they have no children!), and Ilka’s office. The third floor, built under the eaves, is Heiko’s office, but since he doesn’t bring much work home, he intends to turn it into a lounge—someday. In the meantime, he explained, Ilka had made him clean it up and it was set up for me, with a comfortable bed in the corner and plenty of space.

I dumped my stuff and experienced the glories of a real shower—the first since I left home (Joseph’s home had a hand shower, but it wasn’t like having hot water pouring down on my head—oh, the joy!). Then lots of good coffee and fresh bread of all kinds, along with various cheeses, meats, jams and more. And Ilka brought out the black bread that she couldn’t find in the US. I think it really was my favorite—dark with sunflower seeds. After breakfast we drove back to Hamburg for the day.

So—driving. In many ways it really reminded me of the US—the roads are relatively wide (at least Chicago-wide, if not California-wide!) and there are several lanes. The cars are smaller than in the US, but not remarkably so—much like the US would look if we removed the SUVs. However—the autobahns are definitely different. Ilka drove at speeds ranging from 100-160 km/hour. And she was not the fastest on the road. I wasn’t afraid at all, but had I been behind the wheel, I would have been terrified.

The scenery again was both familiar and different. Fields of corn, wheat, barley. Cows and a few sheep. Potatoes, which I’ve never seen in bloom, and asparagus. Fields separated by trees and bushes, not fences. Oak trees, lots of oak trees, and some evergreens. It was vaguely Midwestern in feel, with a touch of Washington for good measure. The buildings though—not at all. Those pictures of European farmhouses? Like that. And the new construction (and there is a lot) carries the feel in the peaked roofs and in the kind of brickwork.

Hamburg is a port city with several rivers that feed into the harbor. So there are bridges and ships and buildings overlooking both. It feels a little like Chicago—comfortable with itself, beautiful in places, rough in others. The skyline is like no American city, though. What I noticed about it was the church spires—some new, some old. One was burnt in WWII and the blackened spire, still quite beautiful, remains. But it is the spires, not skyscrapers that define the landscape.

The first thing we did was to buy me some shoes, which turned out to be more difficult than I would have imagined. The “best” shoes were all very expensive, even without the euro-dollar conversion. After looking in four or five stores ranging from discount to the equivalent of Macy’s, I found a pair of comfortable sneakers designed for walking for only three times what I would have paid in the US. They don’t leak and, after several days of actually walking and walking and walking on them, I can attest to their comfort.

The one thing I had mentioned being interesting in seeing was the Jewish community. This turned out to be very difficult and ultimately unsuccessful, at least in actually meeting Jews. We took trains to the area near the university, where a new Talmud Torah had just been built. The old one had been destroyed during Kristallnacht, but remained standing. There was an open space between old and new. Here had stood a synagogue and the bricks of the square outlined where its rooms had been.

The new school was beautiful—new red brick, fresh paint, and a nice locked metal fence. There was a little guard booth with two policemen in it. I asked why—there had not been trouble in Hamburg, but other places, and they were taking no chances on vandalism. The guard told us the synagogue was but ten minutes walk away. Have no idea what stride he uses, but it took us at least twice that—and it began to rain. The synagogue was, again, surrounded by a fence with a bell and there were several guards. We could not get in, although it was clear that people were inside. In some ways it didn’t surprise me—not many Jews and somehow protected. The original guard had given us a phone number, which Heiko called on Monday—it was only possible to see the place on Friday and Saturday and only by pre-arrangement.

I am still thinking about this—the guards, the inaccessibility. In the US, my concern is how we publicize ourselves—that is, how we make ourselves open and welcoming. Yes, I know synagogues are vandalized (TBJ in Redwood City, the synagogue in Sacto a few years back), but these are events that are rare and ultimately the response of both Jewish and non-Jewish communities is to reach out, not to withdraw. In retrospect, it would have been very interesting to talk with the Jews of Hamburg, but I really didn’t set that up with enough care.

We had dinner at a pub, with very good dark German beer. Ilka recommended the matjes (herring) in cream sauce on a baked potato. I have only had herring from jars and found the texture rubbery and taste overly fishy, so I was a bit leery, but figured that a recommendation is a recommendation. What a difference fresh makes! The fish was tender and sweet and went extremely well with the beer, the potato, the sour cream and onions. Stuffed myself without shame!

Then the train to St. Michael’s church. It is a huge Lutheran church—I’ll try to find a picture link, because I can’t do it justice. Its belltower overlooks the whole of Hamburg, so we took the elevator up to the top. But it was coming down that was amazing. There we took the stairs. Coming up I hadn’t appreciated just how high up we had gone. But coming down seemed to go on for a very long time. And as we descended, the sound of bells tolling grew louder and louder. Eventually we passed four enormous bells—each the size of a small car—all tolling. The ringing vibrated the steps, my clothing, my entire body in a way that was both a bit frightening and absolutely encompassing. I really wanted a picture, but I felt too overwhelmed to linger.

From there we went to a prenuptial party—can’t remember the name of the party. The groom was a childhood friend of Heiko’s; the bride a German girl who had grown up in upstate New York. The ritual that was the excuse for the party was the breaking of ceramic (porcelain) plates as a symbol of good luck for bride and groom. (No, I don’t know why. And neither did Ilka or Heiko. Reminded me a bit of the Jewish tradition where the mothers-in-law break a plate between them…) There were salads—with meat and cheese, marinated vegetables, and barbequed sausages and pork cutlets. There was very little that I could eat—however, I really didn’t WANT to eat, still being full of delicious matjes and beer.

June 24—Bergen-Belsen

Bergen-Belsen was burned by the British after the war. It is, therefore, not a camp, but open meadow and trees. You enter through an exhibit that rehearses the history leading up to the Nazis and throughout the war. It was, I thought, a careful and thoroughly done narrative, neither excusing the Germans nor demonizing them, neither focusing exclusively on Jews nor ignoring the millions of others killed as well. The voices in the room were German—I heard no English except from our group. Outside, paths lead through the camp. The history itself was too familiar to move me much, but when I saw the stone memorial with stones from those who had visited heaped on top, I cried. I had no stones—and there were none around, but I felt the absence, as though I couldn’t quite connect, wasn’t quite respectful enough of the dead. The dead were buried in mass graves that are great huge mounds, each labeled: here lies 1000 dead; here lies 2500 dead, and so on. It is a terrible sight in one sense, but in another it feels like the dead are at rest under the trees and grass—that they make that place sacred and blessed. Sounds odd, I suppose—how can people who died in such circumstances bless the place? I don’t know. I think it comes from the effort to connect and to do t’shuvah on the part of the living. When I think of their memories being for a blessing, it is because when we remember and when we truly atone we are blessed by the dead.

June 25—Winsen

I went with Ilka to school in the morning. It was wonderful to see Ilka take charge of these six and seven year old children. Ilka begins the day with having them sit in a circle. They sing Frere Jacques in several languages: German, French, English, Spanish, Turkish. Then she introduces me, has them tell a bit about their weekend. They sit very quietly all through the end—as with any group of kids, some say a lot, some a little; some mumble and are unfocused, some look at the group with clear eyes and comfort.

When Ilka sends them off to work, they sit at desks set up in groups of four or six, similar to American school setup. The kids are remarkably similar and yet different from the kids in the US. Some of it has to do with stuff: The backpacks, for example, are shaped differently. Rather than being soft-sided, they have rounded plastic sides, and a plastic frame. The pencil boxes are different. But the activities and behavior is so very similar. I think they are more controlled, a bit more willing to take direction. It is a hard thing to put my finger on, though—just slight movements? Clothes?

I watched the first and second grade combo, then went to give an English lesson to the four grade students. They were at the “my name is… I am ….years old. I have…brother” stage, so I gave them a geography lesson in English (well, the teacher translated most of it…) Then I got to watch PE with another group of first and second grade kids. They ran most of the time. But most fun was “pulling carrots.” Here the kids lie down on the ground, face-up, in a circle with feet pointing out and head in, tightly holding hands. One kid tries to “pull” a carrot (kid) out of the circle. When you get pulled, you help pull the others and it continues until everyone’s been pulled out of the “ground.”

Finally went to the last lesson, third grade, and a lesson on food, which is where I learned how to say fruit (obst) and vegetables (gemuse). Yes, indeed, keep me in elementary school and I might learn to speak German…

Speaking, by the way, is really interesting. I can’t. I simply have no idea. Sometimes I think I’ve figured out a word, but most of the time I’m wrong. So I rely on the Germans I’m with to speak English to me and mostly they do. The kindness of strangers…

In the afternoon, Heiko’s parents brought me to their home—it’s over a hundred years old. Heiko’s mother’s family has lived in Winsen for several hundred years. It’s a very different mindset—I simply can’t imagine being that attached to a place. Anyway, she very much wanted a chance to practice her English and I was happy to oblige. We sat in her kitchen and I did a little bit here and there to help. It felt so good to be in a kitchen and preparing food. I do so much of it at home and it’s so much a part of what makes me feel competent…And there’s the bonding that happens around small tasks—cooking, cleaning, painting, gardening, physical tasks that engage the body and free the mind.

We had new potatoes, white asparagus, scrambled eggs, and strawberries. Yes, the strawberries are good…and the potatoes are remarkable!

After lunch, we tramped all around Winsen. More beautiful old buildings, including the church where Heiko and Ilka were married. And then, right at the end, she remembered the Jewish cemetery. Somehow I hadn’t thought that any Jews lived in these towns. I just figured they were too small to support a Jewish community. Yet there they were…several sets of gravestones, some dating back several hundred years. The cemetery was overgrown with grass, but the gravestones were upright and in good conditions. The ones from the 1850s had English on one side and Hebrew on the other. There were a few recent ones—that is, from the Shoah—but only a few. Still, under this peaceful village—somehow Jews were taken away. Heiko’s mother said the Jews from Winsen had attended synagogue in Luneberg, some miles away.

Heiko, Ilka, and I had been to Luneberg the previous evening for dinner. It is an old medieval town with beautiful brickwork—kind of braided in texture—and the copper roofs that seem to be everywhere. But I would never have guessed that Jews had lived there. Was there a cemetery, a synagogue, a Jewish quarter? I don’t know.

The whole experience is a bit unsettling. What am I looking for here? I don’t think I came with any real agenda, simply to see the places from which people I cared for and care about live. I want to see what they want to show me. Yet, the Holocaust still underlies the trip. I didn’t want it to, didn’t expect it to. I don’t hear it in the German language anymore, nor see it in the people on the street (except when I see someone who is stereotypically German in features). But there is a question in my mind—where did my people fit into this place? What happened to them? What does it mean to have lived in a city for 400 years as opposed to Jews, who were not secure in Europe?

Being a Jew in America is something I take for granted—I am comfortable with myself as both. I would not be comfortable as a Jew in Europe, I think. This is pretty fragmented, I’m afraid—needs more thought. I’d take comments, though…

1 comment:

beth said...

I'l try again to post comments. (It's not set up so great, not your fault, Trish.)

It's just fascinating reading about your experiences! My experience with the Gare de Lyon was similar to yours at the Gare du Nord, trying to get to Heidelberg. At least I was able to get a train later that same day. Your time in Paris definitely brought memories back for me, but your interaction with people--Joseph, Laurence, Ilka, the children, etc, and places are so perceptive and wonderful to read. Keep it up!
Shabbat shalom--