Archives for category: history

A couple of Sundays ago, Rachel and I visited the city of Groningen which is hosting the David Bowie Is exhibit at the main museum. The museum is directly across from the train station, but after a two-plus hour train ride from Leiden, we needed lunch before our entry time and walked towards the town center.

As we walked to lunch we passed this synagogue, having had no idea it existed. Overview Groningen synagoge, ca. 1939Note that I had one goal for the day, and that was the museum exhibit. I had no reason to look further into what the town had to offer. Had I given the Groningen page in Lonely Planet Netherlands a peak, I would have taken note. So it was a surprise. Had we taken a different little lane into town, I never would have seen it. A sandwich sign in front announced hourly tours from 1pm until 5. At 4 we entered and requested a tour in English and shortly after a woman whose English was passable started to tell us about the building’s history we were joined by another half-Jewish couple and learned much of the following.

In 1916, the Groningen Jewish community numbered about 3000 and the previous synagogue was unable to seat weekly attendance in excess of 600 worshipers, so they hired an architect to design a new building. Oddly the architect was not Jewish, but he had a wide range of influences. Rachel (who was raised in the Church of England) has been in a few synagogues with me and when our guide asked, what’s strange about this one, her answer was immediate and accurate: ‘It’s shaped like a church.’ And indeed it has a nave and a transept, and a dome at the intersection. In addition, there are elements of Spanish mosques as well such as the alternating light and dark brickwork of the arches on the second level.

The tour itself, after the history lesson, was sort of Judaism 101, but the history of the building was quite interesting. Many of the original artifacts were destroyed, but the building itself was simply used for storage (What did they store here? The answer, ‘As far as we can tell, confiscated radios mostly,’ elicited a sigh of relief. After the war, it spent several decades as a laundry, but funding to reconsecrate it as a synagogue was successfully raised in the early 1980s.

We visited the mikveh which was discovered much later. The baths had been tiled over in the years since WWII and the architectural designs had long since been lost, but being an orthodox synagogue, it was known there had to be a mikveh somewhere. Just off to one side and just barely, as far as I could tell, within the property of the synagogue.

At this point there’s enough of a community in and around Groningen to justify services twice per month. I don’t remember the number precisely, but of a pre-War population of over 3000, something less than 50 returned. From what I gather, the synagogue in Leiden (which I’ve never visited, and which does not share a welcoming sandwich board with tour hours on a Sunday morning) also has services only about twice per month. The liberal synagogue in the Hague is a little more community-facing with weekly services, but I’ve only visited that one once as well.

Rachel commented that it would have been great to share the Groningen venue with my folks when they last visited. Perhaps next time.

That phrase is displayed over a beautiful Danse Macabre in Fuessen, Germany. Spoken by Death, it means ‘Say Yes, Say No, Dance We Must. In the context of Medieval morality, it makes perfect sense. The rich, the poor, the virtuous, and the vicious all die eventually, and as such were taught what might lay beyond. 
I recently wrote about the town of Mittenwald in which a museum display indicated that the museum used to be on Jew’s Lane, but that in 1938, the name was changed. Walking through Rothenburg, Germany was a little bit different than walking through Mittenwald. At various places, one could see evidence of the former Jewish community there. Judengasse still exists – or exists again – with a plaque indicating the lane as the site of the community that was first expelled in 1520. A plaque in the garden that had once been the Jewish cemetery ‘commemorate[s] our fellow Jews who were expelled between 1933 to 1938 from Rothenburg’. Only since 1990, according to a few such plaques, has excavation of the town’s Jewish past been addressed in earnest. 
Note that Rothenburg is an ancient, well-kept town on the Romantic Road. It attracts a large number of tourists from around the world. For some reason, the region is very popular with the Japanese – enough so that signs indicating places or events of interest are posted in German, English, and Japanese. 

As Rachel and I wandered through this medieval town’s historical re-enactment weekend (commemorating since 1974 a victory that occurred in 1274), and relieved the Kathe Wohlfart shoppe of about 150 euros worth of Christmas tree decorations, and heard tourists speaking English, German, French and Japanese, I asked her ‘Why here and not Mittenwald? Why does this town pay more than lip service to its historic Jewish community (and that community’s destruction – at least twice)? Her answer was short and to the point: ‘American tourists.’ [Note: I’m a secular Jew from the US married to a secular Christian from England.]

She had a good point. Mittenwald hosts a lot of tourists – any established town in the Tyrol region will do well with tourists from Germany, Italy, and Austria, but not necessarily beyond, except for the participants in the annual nordic sports competitions. Attendants at those won’t have much time for sightseeing, is my guess.
But we’re at it again. At the moment it’s the damning of refugees from the Middle East and Africa in the press and social media, not those fleeing the Nazis. Perhaps Rev. Niemoller’s cry about speaking out for the ones everyone is speaking against before there’s no one left to speak out for you will make itself heard through the din. Now the Germans are calling for the EU to divide up the refugees teeming (and dying) on its shores somehow equally, and take care of them. [Note: NOT migrants – they haven’t left their home countries by choice – nor are they likely to be able to return any time soon. They’re seeking refuge. The hint’s in the name.] 
Now there are a lot of reasons Germany is better equipped economically and otherwise to absorb a large number of refugees than Greece or some of the other member states. [An argument might be made that supporting large-scale refugee intake programmes in Greece in exchange for – I dunno – debt relief maybe, makes a lot of sense. It’s for another blog, however.] The quartet that gets on my nerves right now are the so-called Visegrad states: Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. These countries are fighting both against the tide of refugees, but against EU efforts to address the issue. The former US ambassador to Hungary, Eleni Kounalakis, wrote an interesting NY Times editorial on the matter this week  in which she asserts that the Hungarian authorities have been stirring up anti-refugee sentiment since this crisis was in its infancy. The thing is, these countries have had native populations of Roma (aka ‘gypsies’ – a derogatory term) for centuries. When one speaks of the 11 million victims of the Holocaust, Jews made up the majority at six million, but the number of Romani victims is variously estimated at between 220,000 to 1,500,000. Since WWII, the Visegrad countries have made little or no effort to integrate this group into society, regularly demonising them and occasionally going so far as to engage in forced sterilisation. [Oddly similar to how the US has treated poor African Americans at various times and how Australia has treated its aboriginal population. Homework: Compare and contrast.] The main issue is that parties in these countries already have a history of demagoguing an underclass to cover for their various stances and policies. Or simply to whip up hate and drum up votes. We’re doing it in the US right now, and my adopted home of the Netherlands has its own bastards in this regard. They’re all playing the same game that’s epitomised in a joke making the rounds: A billionaire, six white unemployed white people, a black person stand at a table with a dozen donuts. The billionaire takes eleven donuts and tells the white people, ‘Look out – the black guy’s gonna take your donut.’
  Many Hungarians and people all over the world who are addressing refugee crises [we haven’t seen much of the US border with Mexico in the press lately, but trust me, that situation hasn’t changed] know what needs to be done now – normal people are offering up their homes and resources to help people in need. Of course these aren’t the ones in the news. While we have to hear from the Viktor Orbans, Donald Trumps, Nigel Farages, Petra Laszlos, and Rita Verdonks of the world first, we’ve danced this dance before and really don’t need to dance it again.

Adventures this week included a wander around central Innsbruck, Austria and a visit to Das Geigenbaumuseum (violin museum) in Mittenwald, Germany. 

In Innsbruck, Rachel took note of a plaque that honoured the Allied soldiers who liberated the city and Austria itself. ‘There’s a difference,’ she said, ‘between liberation and defeat.’ In the 30s, two of the main parties vying for control of the Austrian parliament with the Christian Socialists (also known as the Austrofascists) and the Nationial Socialists. When it looked like the National Socialists were going to win 40% of the vote in Innsbruck, Engelbert Dollfuss and the Austrofascists banned state and municipal elections. While Dolfuss was against reunification with Germany as long as the Nazis were in power, he was allied with Mussolini. His successor Kurt Schuschnigg (1934–1938) also maintained an anti-unificaiton stance, while also maintaining Dolfuss’ Catholic corporatist policies. Yes, the Nazis marched on Austria in 1938 and installed a puppet governmnent, but did so to cheering crowds. (Note: while all this info is nicked from Wikipedia, I’m entirely open to especially this last generalisation being shown as incorrect.)

So what are we doing in Germany and Austria? Our plan this year was to holiday in Scotland – enjoy a week of the Fringe and maybe drive about and taste some whisky. When the euro crashed, we decided to stay in the eurozone. We wrapped our holiday around my desire to re-visit Fussen, home of two of Mad King Ludwig’s crazy castles. In advance of that, we’re spending a week in Seefeld, Austria mostly hiking, taking in the spas, and enjoying the fact that mountains exist somewhere (just not in the Netherlands, where we spend most of the year. 

Back to Mittenwald and the museum: Interesting exhibits, but a dearth of postcards. The museum provides a history of the town by way the families who established the town as an instrument-making center in post-Renaissance central Europe as well as by description of the town as a trading centre between Italy and points north.

Rachel wasn’t interested in the violin museum, and I wasn’t keen on the Leutasch Geisterklamm (Leutasch Spirit Gorge) walk that she wanted to do. Metal walkways anchored several hundred feet up the side of a mountain – not so keen, me. I’d done a chair lift the day before and feel I have appeased the deities of my acrophobia for this trip. So I left Rachel at the entrance to her walk and drove the four kilometres to Mittenwald where we planned to meet a few hours later. 
  The museum is on Ballenhausgasse – as far as I can figure, Ballenhaus is the local equivalent of a customs warehouse where trade goods are stored until duties are paid. This makes some sense as the Ballenhaus is about 80 metres down the lane (Gasse) with a plaque on the wall. Both the house in which the museum is located and the balllenhaus are about 300 years old. 

The museum takes up two floors. The upper floor displays are concerned with the actual instruments, their makers, and the various processes used to create them. The ground floor’s are mostly concerned with the town’s and the museum’s history and are punctuated with banners containing text in German and in English. My interest in the entire experience took a dive with one particular text covering the history of museum. It was founded in 1930 and moved to its current location in 1960. Apropos of little, the display indicates that until 1938, Ballenhausgasse had been called Judengasse. Does that mean what I think it means? The word wasn’t translated on the English column of text. Yes. Jews Lane. 

Perhaps no explanation, beyond the year of the change, is really necessary. On the other hand, towns, villages, and cities all over this part of the world had thriving Jewish communities. And then they didn’t. The obliteration of the people in these places is a matter of established record. I don’t believe it’s been long enough to excuse with a mere, ‘Well, naming the street for the building just made more civic sense.’ The grafitti artists of Seefeld, 20 kilometres away know that fascism and its attendant horrors are a continuous threat.