Wednesday, January 25, 2012

What we learned from our trip to Germany...

Toasting with "Quaker vodka" (i.e. water)
Jill and I are back from a two-week family vacation in Germany and here are a few things we learned:

1) Germany is a carnivore's heaven, with bratwurst and sausages filling the winter air with sumptious aromas, tempting even the most committed vegetarian. However, Germany also is a vegetarian's delight, with beautiful organic produce available in farmer's markets in every city we visited.

2) Germans can be extraordinarily friendly and helpful. A couple of times, when we were lost driving our rented car (a bad decision since public transport is excellent and private cars unnecessary in most cases), Germans often to show us the way to our destination by leading us there in their cars. This happened three times, and each time we thanked God for our German guides!

3) On the other hand, Germans aren't hesitant to scold you in public if you do something wrong. For example, when we sample some freebies at a farmer's market and didn't use the folks provided, a man in a truck (not the owner) chided us. We've been told this is not unusual.

4) Germans are orderly and disciplined folk, except on New Year's eve and Oktoberfest, when they go crazy. (See below)

5) Germans prove that people can change dramatically if they are willing to admit their mistakes. We were impressed that the Germans ackowledged the evils of Nazism and the Holocaust so openly. In Germany you have to pay for everything, including going to the public toilets, but admission to Dachau was free. The tour was an unforgettable experience. German children are taken to the camps as part of their education. The message "Never again" comes through loud and clear. And Germans no longer idolized warriors, as we Americans still do. We went to a church in a German village that had a war memorial for the "fallen heroes" of the Great War. But German soldiers who died in WWII are simply referred to as "the fallen." In contrast, we Americans constantly refer to all our troops as heroes, even though some of them commit atrocities. If the Germans have gotten over the cult of the warrior, there is hope we Americans can do likewise. For the sake of world peace, and our nation's soul, the sooner we get over our warrior worship, the better!

6) Germans have a green economy and prosperity, thereby disproving the conservative canard that environmental laws are "job-killers."  See

7) Germans have good policies regarding affordable housing, including rent control. Overall, middle class Germans have a quality of life that is superior to that of most middle class Americans, and the poverty rate is much lower than ours.

Some of our impressions of Germany:

We thoroughly enjoyed celebrating Christmas in Heidelberg with Jill's family. It was fun going to the Christmas market, playing games and "lip synching" (a family tradition). 

We also enjoyed wandering through the old city of Heidelberg with its cobblestone streets and its ancient castle, and taking part in the Christmas eve service at the local Protestant church, where the hymns were of course sung in German. Hearing "Stille Nacht" ("Silent Night") and other familiar hymns in German is somehow very moving. And I had learned just enough German to be able to sing along...

We had a delightful family excursion through the beautiful snow-dusted Black Forest region, where we visited quaint towns such as Frieberg and Triberg, and also Auger, the village where the Heirendt family originated. There Dwight read us the stories of family members dating back to the early 19th century.

After our family visit, Jill and I went on a trek through southern Germany. We stopped off at the ancient walled city of Rothenberg and then went to Munich, where we spent two nights in this amazing city, the heart of Bavaria. We visited museums, the beautiful Marienplatz, dined in an ancient ratskeller (and learned that "rat" has nothing to do with "rats"--it means "council," so a "rathaus" means a "city hall" and a "ratskeller" is a restaurant under a city hall). Speaking of halls, we went to a genuine Munich beer hall (or hofbrau), even though we don't drink, and had a great time conversing with some Mexican students who were studying English in England and were vacationing in Germany. We were also moved by some Russian Jewish street musicians and bought their albums--jazz and klezmer music full of Jewish soul. (Today around 10,000 Jews live in Munich, the same number as before WWII.)

We then went to Nurnberg, where we stayed in the old walled city in a hotel called the Elch that's been in business for 650 years! (Yes, it was first recorded as an inn in 1343!).

Along with seeing the beauties of German art and architecture (and the glorious landscapes of the Black Forest and Franconia), we went to Dachau and the Jewish museum in Berlin--very powerful experiences that will forever be etched in our memories.

Russian Jews playing Klesmer in Munich

Anthony and Marga Zimmerman, a Mannheim Quaker

Jill and Giselda Faust, a Berlin Quaker

Anthony and Donna, Jill's mom

The lowpoint of our trip were the fireworks in Berlin on New Year's eve. We expected to see the kind of beautiful, and controlled, fireworks you see in the states, but in Berlin, there are no safety laws and people go crazy. They shoot off fireworks everywhere, even in the metro cars! The city became like a war zone, with a haze of sulphurous smoke everywhere, and we became terrified, especially when we heard the ominous sound of ambulances making noises like the ones you hear in old movies about the Nazis. Even when we returned to our hotel, we could barely sleep for the cacophony.

The next day we went to meeting for worship with the Berlin Quakers and were grateful for the peace and quiet that prevailed. Because of the time (Jan 1), only four Friends took part--all elderly folk in their 80s and 90s. But they were very kind and made us feel welcome.

We were esp. grateful for a delighted 88-year-old Quaker nurse named Giselda Faust who escorted us to interesting places in the city. She told us about the role of Quakers in the "kindertransport" that saved the lives of 10,000 Jewish children. See  She also took us to the "raum der stille" (quiet room) in the Brandenberg gate, which Quakers helped to start:

Anthony and Michael Seltzer
Along with visiting Quakers in Berlin and Mannheim, we visited with an old friend of Anthony's from high school named Michael Seltzer who runs a kite shop in Berlin. We had a delightful lunch with him and learned a lot about the political and social world of American ex pats living in Germany. He is a past president of the Progressive Democrats of Berlin. Who knew such an organization existed, or that it had 1,500 members, and held the biggest Obama victory party outside of the USA?

We could go on and on, but I think you get the picture: Germany is a fascinating place, and we are glad we had a chance to explore some of its many facets.

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