Hello my friends! I have made it to Florence! It has been an interesting, and quite frankly exhausting few days. Ernst dropped me off at the train station on Monday, and I had a smooth train ride to Munich. We arrived a few minutes late and they changed the track for my 9:07pm connecting train so there was about 10 minutes of scrambling, but I made it in time and was plopping my bag on my bed as the train started to roll out. I had the top bunk in a room with three other people (two of the beds were unoccupied, there were six beds in total, two stacks of three) I shared the room with a young German woman in her 20’s going to Firenze (Florence), an Italian man in his mid 40’s continuing to Rome and a German woman who appeared to be in her late 60’s also going to Firenze. A few minutes after we pulled out of Munich, the “train lady’ came by to check our tickets. I had already climbed into my top bunk and she almost missed me. She rattled something off at me in German after looking at my ticket, took it with her and left. The young German girl must have seen the confused expression on my face, because she sweetly translated for me. She explained that they were going to keep my ticket until about 20 minutes before our arrival in Firenze, then the “train lady” would wake us up and return the ticket. I asked her how she knew I spoke English, and she said, with a shy smile, that she had heard me muttering to myself. I know I talk to myself a lot, but this is the first time it came in handy.
My other three companions seemed eager to sleep so I didn’t complain when they turned the lights out. I lay there in my bunk, enjoying the gently rocking motion of the train and found myself thinking about my profound experience in Germany.
My hosts for the past six weeks, Ernst and Sylvia, are the kind of people you hope you will meet on an adventure such as mine. (I will say, I have been extremely lucky on this trip and made some amazing friends) Exceedingly bright, well traveled and as kind as anyone could wish. They are actually both Dutch and have chosen Germany as their home. They are also Jewish. They named their dog Motek after the Hebrew word for ‘sweetie’. (And he is a sweetie. A big, playful sweet white shepherd. I really need to stop falling in love with the pets I am in charge of, but I don’t see it happening) I wasn’t the full time carer for Motek, as they only needed me to watch him when they went out of town to the Synagogue to celebrate the Jewish high holidays of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. The best part of my time in Germany was getting to know Sylvia and Ernst. I accompanied them on their routine excursions out of town and they also took me to many places I would never have known about without their guidance.
One afternoon Sylvia and I went into Oldenburg to try to find me a proper winter coat. I mention that in my last post. While we were there, Sylvia also showed me the many monuments to WW2 that they have there in town. Close to the synagogue that they attend is a monument to all of the Jewish people from Oldenburg who lost their lives during that time. It contains all of their names and the places where they died. (Photos at the end of the post) I found myself incredibly moved and had to choke down the tears that wanted to fall.
Sylvia then told me that each year, on November 9th, the town, in fact…all of Germany…commemorates the night of ‘Kristallnacht’, the ‘Night of Broken Glass” …a wave of anti Jewish pogroms that took place on November 9th and 10th , 1938. Many Jews in Oldenburg, (and in the rest of Germany) were rounded up and marched from the police station through the city to the prison. Their businesses and synagogues, homes, hospitals and schools were vandalized, looted, desecrated and sometimes even burned to the ground. The name came from the shards of broken glass that littered the streets after the buildings were destroyed. From there, the Jews were sent to concentration camps.
It wasn’t until the 70’s that Germany began to acknowledge the atrocities that occurred during that time. And one of the outcomes of that acknowledgement was a national determination to never let such a thing occur again in their country. Each year in Oldenburg, a different school is chosen to make the same walk that the Jews did in 1938, to remind young people and us all to never allow that kind of hate to ever be allowed to flourish, let alone be the basis for a government.
I will flat out admit that I never thought about what Germany must feel about that time. Of course I was taught about WW2, but as a country we were somewhat removed. My father fought in WW2 as a ball turret gunner and radio man on B24J Liberator bombers. I knew how the war affected Americans and Jews, but I never thought about how it affected Germans. Close to the Jewish memorial there is another one…this one to the German military from Oldenburg killed in both world wars. And I found myself thinking about all the young men conscripted into fighting a war that most of them probably wanted no part of. And I thought about all of the brave men and women from all countries and faiths that fought as hard as they could against the tyranny and hate that had infected Europe at that time.
Germany is still dealing with the guilt from WW2. As they should be, so that it will not be repeated. When a country becomes obsessed with hate against those that are different…when it believes that it is superior to others, when it has a leader who encourages that hate and spreads anger and prejudice and lies…we need to pay attention…and make damn sure that what happened in Germany does NOT happen again.
Sylvia and Ernst shared with me what their own families went through during that time, and I felt privileged that they bared the truth of their own lives and experiences and opened my eyes to what is to them still a very personal and relevant part of their history. They see the war as something that they and families and fellow Jews are still dealing with.. in a way that we Americans don’t. But…Americans need to listen to stories such as theirs. We NEED to be reminded of what can happen when hate overwhelms reason.
I fell asleep thinking about my time in Germany and my dear lifelong friends Ernst and Sylvia (and Motek!) I thought about how privileged I am to have this experience. I thought about all the beautiful people I have met so far and how much each one has enriched my life. So it was a rude awakening when the ‘train lady” knocked on our cabin door and informed us that we were 30 minutes away from Firenze.(My German young friend translated for me again.)
I gathered my belongings and stood by the window as we rolled in, and had to holdback the tears as I saw Italy pass by. I made it to my flat and met Claudia, whose sweet kitty “Lemmy’ I will be in charge of for the next two weeks. Its an odd feeling to be in a foreign country entirely on my own with a very limited understanding of the language. Strange, but exhilarating. I will have many tales to tell, I am sure.