“It happened, therefore it can happen again.” – Primo Levi

In part, the impetus for our travels across Eastern Europe was the opportunity to educate ourselves about the Holocaust. We didn’t intentionally choose Berlin, Krakow, Vienna, and Prague for this purpose, but we did find these cities (like many across Europe) intrinsically intertwined in a shared dark history of such grisly magnitude it is hard to comprehend. We sought out memorials and museums throughout our trip to understand how such atrocities could unfold and to further our resolve to identify and curtail parallel tendencies in our own country.

Our first encounter with Holocaust memorials were the simple cobblestones, called Stolperstein, we stumbled across while wandering the streets of Berlin.

On our second day in Berlin we decided to visit the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The memorial starts simple, small, and unimposing, with simple concrete slabs slightly protruding from the ground like benches. There’s another Stolperstein-like cobble nearby that starts a virtual concert on your phone to listen to as your enter the memorial.

As I moved forward into the memorial it struck me how quickly I was engulled and overwhellmed by the columns which towered over me. It seemed a warning to how quickly something innocuous could become something sinister. And how, like a maze, it can be hard to find your way out.

The tall columns extended down into the earth and were revealed in a visitor center and museum below the memorial. It was like going underground into a crypt where placards detailed the historical progression of the rise of Nazi Germany and the events that led to the Holocaust. The most poignant and heartwrentching experience were the last words of the murdered printed in panels on the floor speaking to you from beyond the grave…

Dear father! I am saying goodbye to you before I die. We would so love to live, but they won’t let us and we will die. I am so scared of this death, because small children are thrown alive into the pit. Goodbye forever. I kiss you tenderly.” – 12-year old Judith Wishnyatskaya 31 July 1942
I fell beside him and his corpse turned over, | tight already as a snapping string. | Shot in the neck. – And that’s how you’ll end too, – | I whispered to myself; lie still; no moving. | Now patience flowers in death. Then I could hear – | Der springt noch auf, – above, and very near. | Blood mixed with mud was drying on my ear.” – Szentkirályszabdja, 31 Oct 1944

On our third day in Berlin we went to the Topography of Terror Museum. Housed on the site of the State Secret Police (Gestapo), SS, and Reich Security offices, the museum is a vast and meticulous archive of the rise and fall of the Nazi regime with a focus the organized and institutionalized propoganda and terrorist methodologies they used to gain and retain power. It asks the central question which seems just as relevant today in the era of Trump: “How did National Socialism, which in retrospect was such an obviously deceitful, megalomaniacal, and criminal undertaking, succeed in attaining such a high degree of acceptance in Germany? Hilter, the Nazi Party gauleiters, a majority of ministers, state secretaries, and advisors acted as classic populists attuned to shifting moods. They bought public approval or at least indifference anew every day. By giving and taking away, they built a dictatorship of consent with consistent majority appeal.” Götz Aly, Historian, 2005.

After spending several hours walking our way from historical placard to historical placard tracing the depressing arc of Nazi evil, we finally learned the fate of the many perpetrators of Nazi terror and the Holocaust. It was depressing to learn that of the tens of thousands of Nazis involved in the murder of millions, only a handful were ever held accountable.

Both the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and the Topography of Terror museum had ample of documentation and ominous allusions to horrors of Auschwitz and Birkenau – our next holocaust experience.

Krakow, Poland: Our day started early, where dawn met drizzle. It was an appropriately damp and somber setting for seeing Auschwitz and Birkenau. We had booked ourselves into a small tour (~20 people) and set out on the hour and a half drive from Kraków to Auschwitz bracing ourselves for what would prove to be a harrowing and spirit-crushing tour of the brutality and atrocities of the most notorious of Nazi extermination camps.

From March 1942 on until the end of WWII, trains from all across Europe arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau where over one million people were murdered by the Nazi’s. By the summer of 1944 the extermination initiative reached its peak. Of those arriving in Auschwitz-Birkenau only a small number were classified as “capable of work”, while the vast majority (women, children, and the elderly) were herded into “changing rooms” and forced to undress before heading to the “delousing showers” where they are gassed to death. The killing reached 10,000 people a day with the crematoria operating day and night but still unable to keep up with the bodies. Jewish prisoners were forced to burn the bodies of their dead in the open. Approximately one million Jews, 75,000 Polish prisoners, 21,000 Sinti and Roma, 15,000 Soviets POWs, and 10,000 other prisoners of other nationalities died at Auschwitz-Brikenau complex alone.

We went to Auschwitz first. Originally a Polish military base, it had been converted by the occupying Nazis into a death camp. You start your tour by walking past double barbed wire fences and and under the banner “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work Sets You Free”).

You are then brought into a small museum to see some of the belongings left behind by the Jews who died here. Jews were told they were being relocated and to pack their bags. This ruse served two purposes: 1) It gave people hope and kept the panic down as they believed they were just being resettled. 2) It brought valuables (clothing (often lined with precious stones), silverware, brushes, glasses, and other belongings) which were repurposed (along with gold from the fillings of the dead) to support the German war effort.

The Nazis also shaved everybody’s hair. We were invited into a room to see a massive display of hair that had been found in bales. We were not allowed to take photographs out of respect for the dead. This hair was used by the Nazis for all kinds of purposes, such as clothing and insulation.

Our tour continued through barrack after barrack, many with walls lined with photos of the victims. Notice the twins. Joseph Mengele‘s obsession with experimenting on twins meant these poor victims received his “special” treatment. We walked through the grounds and through notorious torture cells of Block 11 and past The Black Wall where those kept in Block 11 were executed.

Lastly, we walked through the first gas chamber and crematoria where the Nazis perfected their use of Zyklon B. But the gas chamber here (and the cremetorium for burning the dead) was determined to be too small to meet their production goals.

The Nazis realized they couldn’t kill effectively enough at Auschwitz. It was then they began building Birkenau which was only a short bus ride away.

On the way to Birkenau you follow the train tracks. The same tracks hundreds of thousands of Jews were herded into before meeting their death. The train tracks go straight through the gates of Birkenau and the tracks end between the barracks and the gas chambers and cremetoria.

Nearby we toured a barrack and the adjacent latrines. Interestingly enough, the latrines were the center of Jewish resistance in the camps. Getting a job in the latrines was coveted because although the stench was unbarable and conditions unsanitary, the Nazis wouldn’t venture there. That autonomy gave the workers there the ability to become the center of black market commuications for trade and organized resistance.

The magnitude of death and the size of both Auschwitz and Birkenau are so overwhelming you are really just numb to the horror of the place. I honestly didn’t really feel anything while I was there, except perhaps stunned, angry, and a bit nauseated seeing that mountain of hair.

That was until we came to a spot where we stood by the side of the tracks. It was a place where thousands upon thousands of Jewish passengers disembarked only to be quickly inspected and separated from each other and their belongings into two groups; those who would be processed for work and those who would be processed for death. We were told to walk the gravel road to the end, towards the remains of the destroyed gas chambers and cremetoria. It was then, walking that road, I was overwhelmed with the sorrow of a million souls. Retracing those footsteps my feet became heavy, as did my heart. The drizzle intensified. Or was it my tears? I stared silently into the pit of the collapsed and suken gas chamber at the end of the road. Death lingered there still.


Categories: Berlin, Europe, Krakow | 4 Comments

Berlin: A High Fashion Photoshoot and the East Side Gallery

We needed to catch the 8:30 am train from Prague to Berlin and the train was late. First a ten minute delay followed quickly by another ten. Then sixy minutes. Then ninety. Finally the departures sign showed a 120 minute. We waited anxiously. West’s fashion photoshoot for Noon magazine with photographer Mark Peckmezian and stylist Brian Molloy (remember West had been scouted when we were previously in Berlin). Over the past week we had been coordinating with Webber (Mark Peckmezian’s representation) about getting West to the shoot. It was an all day event and we had told them we could only arrive by Noon. To maximize West’s time they were sending a car to pick us up at the train station and deliver us (and all our luggage) directly to the studio. Now we were running two hours late.

Right on delayed time the train arrived and departed just as quickly again for the four hour trip to Berlin. The train ride from Prague to Berlin, epecially the sections along the Elbe and through Dresden, were lovely.

We arrived in Berlin around 2:30 pm and found a car and driver waiting patiently for us.

We were delivered across Berlin to the dingy and decidedly punk rock neighborhood of Kreuzberg, home to artists (and their studios), thrift stores, coffee shops, and record stores! Upon arrival at the studio we saw the photographer and his crew busily photographing other scouted models. West was quickly whisked into a flurry of clothing, makeup, and bright lights.

Tawny stayed with West during his photo shoot. Tawny was suprised to see he was shooting on 120 film instead of shooting digitally. Meanwhile, Clara and I went out to explore Kreuzberg. We didn’t know where we were going but quickly found ourselves in an artsy neighborhood with several excellent record stores (Soultrade, Heisse Scheiben, and a punk rock one called Wowsville I loved. It doubled as a cafe and we got ourselves an afteroon coffee and a beer, talked (Dad to Daughter), and reviewed our haul of excellent LPs and 7″s). It was nice to spend an adventuresome afternoon exploring a Berlin neighborhood with Clara.

Eventually Clara and I made our way back to the photo studio to collect Tawny and West. The shoot was a wrap. They put us back in a car to deliver us to our hotel (Moxy Berlin, which I don’t recommend) located near the East Side Gallery. After settling into our tiny rooms we went for a sunset walk along the open air gallery of paintings on a large remaining section of the Berlin wall.

We founds ourselves at a restaurant called Michelberger (located in the Michelberger hotel) where we enjoyed a very innovative and at times avant-garde meal. In particular, the zander (which I’d never had before), rhubarb, broad beans, black garlic (first picture here) was transcendant.

It was an incredibly long day, but one filled with interesting experiences in every moment and around every corner. Tomorrow we’d head to Iceland for the next chapter of our European spring vacation.

Categories: Berlin, Europe, Prague | 2 Comments

Checkpoint Chuck: Berlin Day 3

Part of the impetus for our Eastern European itinerary (Berlin, Krakow, Vienna, Prague) was to visit places with strong sociopolitical significance. Politics have social conseqences people! Where better to understand that truism than learning of the extreme social consequences the political rise of Nazism, the resulting Holocaust, and subsequent Cold War? Given the uncanny and chilling parallels between Trump‘s rise to power and that of Hitler’s, it was a trip we felt we needed to make.

Our day began at the epicenter of the both the height and end of the Cold War: Checkpoint Charlie (now reduced to a photo opportunity where you can get a McFlurry off the Euro menu).

Would you like fries with your landmark?
Looking East

We knew Checkpoint Charlie would be disappointing but it would only have been more disappointing to have avoided it all together. Howver, the nearby Mauermuseum Museum Haus Am Checkpoint Charlie proved an interesting distraction from the rain. For all it’s eclectic, eccentric, and discombobulated curation is an important center and collection of artificts for preserving Berlin’s history, the Wall, the Cold War, and the pursuit of freedom, be it individuals and families escaping the DDR by slipping under the Iron Curtain, or by documenting organized politial struggles around the globe.

After the Mauermuseum we headed across the street to the Die Mauer Asisi Panorama. It was a pretty amazing work of art by Yadegar Asisi. Asisi created this massive 18-meter high perspective photo recreation of a ficticious day in the life of the Wall in 1989, looking East fromt the West. When you enter the room, and climb up to a 4-meter high viewing platform you get this curved perspective view that puts the panorammic photo into three dimentions. You truly feel you are there with the introduction of lights and sounds.

After Die Mauer Asisi Panorama we had a quick lunch at nearby Yarok Fine Syrian Foods from Damascus. Typically I wouldn’t mention this except this place had, hands down, the best and most fragrant falafal I have ever tasted. We all agreed. It was amazing. Go there.

The restaurant was right across the street from the Topography of Terror museum (which I’ll blog about later) located on the site where the State Secret Police (Gestapo), SS, and Reich Security had their offices. We spent a few hours there looking throught the meticulous documentation of the atrocities of the Nazi terror machine.

To lighten the mood we headed to Alexander Platz for a walk around the bustling area and then started walking towards Friedrichshain and found ourselves in Volkspark Friedrichshain Berlin’s oldest park. We walked around the park enjoying the nearby neighborhood, curious statues and found great cafe in the park were we enjoyed a sunset glass of wine.

We ended our evening at Feuer and Flamme, a fondue restaurant in Friedrichshain.

Categories: Berlin, Europe | 1 Comment

Flea Market & a Casting Scout: Berlin Day 2

Most German businesses are closed on Sundays. That left our cold and sunny Sunday with only the touristy options open most days of the weeks such as the Brandenburg Gate, Reichstag Building, Siegessäule (Victory Column), and Tiergarten, and the Holocaust Memorial. We had €5 unlimited über rides around the city all weekend thanks to our helpful über driver from the night before who had given us a “Heyber” promotional code! We called an über and headed out.

We didn’t plan far enough in advance to visit the Reichstag dome (which requires registering for tickets early in the day) so instead, we went to visit Brandenberg Gate and then walked to the nearby Holocaust Memorial (which I will blog about in another post). After that sobering experience, we needed some Frühlingsgefühle and Geborgenheit. We decided to spend the rest of our Sunday in the flea market at Maurerpark. To our surprise, the über dropped us right in front of the photobooth from the night before. The empty lot and park across the street had been transformed overnight into the largest flea market we’d ever seen. It was teaming with hoards of humanity and countless treasures waiting to be discovered.

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We spent our afternoon rummaging through bins of artifacts, tables of bric-a-brac, endless record collections and exploring local arts and crafts booths. This was punctuated by several trips to the Schönwetter* Biergarten to drink, eat pizza and fill up on currywurst before hitting more bins, sorting through more vinyl and hiking a short hill to explore an old section of the Berlin Wall and watch local graffiti artists applying their skills.

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From the hill, we could hear artists performing below and we walked amongst beatboxers, brass bands, street performers, and pick-up basketball games as we made our way back into the flea market for another round of shopping.

As we sat at the Biergarten a woman approached us and asked if West had ever modeled before. West had bought a new vintage jacket (one Clara had found and insisted he buy) and he was looking very cool. She introduced herself at Valeria, a casting scout working for photographer Mark Peckmezian (instagram) (webberrepresents). She insisted Mark would like his look and would probably like to photograph him for a new portrait series he was doing for n-o-o-n (a UK publication) with stylist Brian Molloy.  We told her we were heading out of town on Tuesday and would only be back to Berlin breifly in about a week. She told us the photo shoot would be on April 3 and 4th and as luck would have it, that is when we’ll be returning. She emailed us later that evening and put us in contact with the agency to make arrangements. We are planning on taking an earlier train back from Prague to make it in time for the shoot.

As Valeria left us and long shadows emerged from vendor booths of weary buyers and sellers and the air settled in a chill around us, we turned ourselves towards Prenzlauer Berg in search of dinner.

Tawny found a great restaurant nearby called Montraw listed as one of Berlin’s Top Ten where enjoyed a fantastically innovative meal.

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It was a perfect meal to end a perfect day in Berlin. One could see how easy it could be to become a Berliner.

Categories: Berlin, Europe | 1 Comment

A Sexy Hotel & Paul’s Boutique: Berlin Day 1

I had been to Prague and Vienna in the early 1990s, as well as Berlin and Krakow in 2000. I had always wanted return and to take my family there. And so, we decided to take Clara’s two-week spring break in Eastern Europe as a family (with West, Clara’s boyfriend joining us). Our itinerary included Berlin, Krakow, Vienna, Prague, and short stayover in Reykjavík on our return home.

Berlin received us before noon, courtesy of Icelandair‘s early arrival. It was a sunny Saturday morning and although we were exhausted from the long flight, we were excited to start exploring the city.

A taxi wound us through the streets of Berlin to the hotel Provocateur, where we found our rooms would not be ready until after three-o-clock. A shower and change of clothes from our trip would have to wait. The helpful hotel staff pointed us towards nearby Kurfürstendamm, the local shopping district. Shopping sounded fun so we headed off in that direction to find stores and something for lunch. Unfortunately, Kurfüerstendamm disappointed us for shopping since most stores were either large multi-national chains or luxury goods which held little interest for treasure hunters like us. We steered off  off the beaten path of polished boulevards and lavish window displays and wove ourselves up and down side streets in search of a more authentic Berliner experience.

We stumbled across a quaint little restaurant filled with local pensioners called Café Maitre Munch. It proved our first taste of Berliner food to be a win (although the green and overly sweet Berliner Weisse was far too much for our taste).

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After lunch, we headed back to our hotel to shower and change. Our rooms were ready and better yet we had been given an “upgrade”. We picked this hotel because it was part of the Marriott collection and had booked it through the Marriott website. Perhaps we should have looked more closely at the Provocateur’s website first. While the hotel was certainly small and intimate…that intimacy took on new meaning as we found it was listed as a “sensual” hotel. We entered our red velvet ensconced rooms and were greeted by ample mirrors, erotic art books, the latest German edition of Playboy (they still print full nudes in Playboy Germany BTW), unmentionables availabe in the mini-bar, and a switch on the wall for something called “Provocateur mode”. Of course when we discovered that we had to flip it on.  The lights automatically dimmed, some sexy music came from hidden speakers in the walls, and then artsy black and white risqué moving images were projected upon the wall from a hidden source in the wall. We laughed it off, but with two seventeen-year-olds traveling with parents, it was….awkward…

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As soon as we could differentiate our blushes from our velvet curtains, we caught an über to trendy Prenzlauer Berg to visit Paul’s Boutique (not Paul’s Boutique) – a major mission for our Berlin itinerary. It did not disappoint. Paul’s was an overwhelming assault of visual stimulation and vintage picking which helped fend off our mounting jet lag.

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After a few prized purchases at Paul’s we headed down the street of hipster bars, beergardens, cafes, and vintage boutiques in search of more treasures. We found OYE – a record store on our list of places to visit. It proved fruitful in producing a dozen or so 7″ 45 rpm vinyls for our new juke box back home. As we strolled the streets looking for somplace to eat we came across a seemingly abandoned photo booth sitting in front of a large empty lot on the edge of the neighborhood. Clara and West did a photo session.

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We topped off a rather long day (which started on Friday morning in Seattle and it was now 7pm in Berlin on Saturday) with a traditional German meal of beer, pretzels, schnitzel, and stuffed peppers at a beer garden called Georgbraeu Brauhaus we found near Alexandererplatz before nodding asleep in an über on our way back to the velvet couches and curtains of the Provacateur for a much needed sleep.

Categories: Berlin, Europe, Vienna | 2 Comments

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