A Winter Wonderland in the Erzgebirge

A Winter Wonderland in the Erzgebirge

Today the lighting of the first of four candles in a wreath marks the first Sunday of Advent, the official opening of the Christmas season. We recently prepped for the season with a visit to Seiffen in the Erzgebirge, a mountain range far east in Germany near the Czech border.

Even before Advent, the quaint town of woodworking workshops was packed with tourists from all over Germany and beyond, as the finely handcrafted Christmas decorations are sold all over the world. You may recognize, for example, the Christmas pyramids, layered wooden towers with a circle of small paddles at the top that spin when candles are lit underneath. Particular to eastern Germany are also incense burners in the shape of men with pipes, and Schwibbogen: arched candleholders decorated with figures or silhouettes.

The boxy Seiffen church is a popular motif among the carved wooden items, as are woodpeckers, which must be abundant in the densely forested mountain range.


It was fascinating to explore one of the workshops in Seiffen to get an appreciation for the local trade. While more work is now accomplished with machines, there is still quite a bit done by hand or a combination of both. The man we saw chiseling into small wooden cones spun by a machine could churn out a perfectly formed pine tree in less than a minute. Each woodworker we saw was likewise concentrated on one meticulous and monotonous task: drilling a hole in the shoe pieces for the nutcrackers, painting eyes on angel figurines, gluing beards onto tiny dwarves. These woodworms complete a three-year apprenticeship program to become licensed woodworkers, a profession that nearly every family in this small but world-famous town seems to be involved in.

And, of course, these industrious little elves also make toys in addition to seasonal ornamentation. We visited the Seiffen Toy Museum for a further look into the evolution of crafted wooden toys. One display showed how wooden animal figures can be sliced off like cookies on a roll after the outline is carved around a cross section from a log. Various interactive toys and games interspersed among those behind glass keep the museum engaging for visitors of all ages.

The sleepy but studious town of Seiffen seemed to resemble its own candlelit wooden house miniatures more and more as the day wore on and turned to early night. As a memento of our time here, we bought our own Schwibbogen with a fastidiously adorned Christmas bakery set among a silhouetted forest scene, complete with two of its own tiny Schwibbogen decorations.

Looking forward to another season of Christmas markets, newly underway. Frohes Fest! / Happy Holidays!

Berlin Remembers

Memorials of Past Darkness for a Brighter Future

Flowers and candles outside the American Embassy in support of Orlando victims
Flowers, candles, and gay pride flags outside the American Embassy in support of the Orlando victims

Beneath a thin layer of grit and a heavy mound of history, Berlin thrives today as a vibrant, cosmopolitan capital. A young city that was rebuilt after its destruction in WWII, divided for around 40 years into communist East and capitalist West, it was reunited 25 years ago as the capital of the unified Federal Republic of Germany.

Among its busy streets, funky cafes, and modern office buildings, Berlin seeks to acknowledge the most recent periods of Germany’s past and to educate the public for a better future.

Berlin remembers…

Jews,

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

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Roma and Sinti (aka Gypsies),

Memorial to the Sinti and Roma Victims of National Socialism
Memorial to the Sinti and Roma Victims of National Socialism

homosexuals,

Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted Under Nazism
Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted Under Nazism

and politicians who opposed Hitler

Memorial to the Politicians Who Opposed Hitler
Memorial to the Politicians Who Opposed Hitler

who were dehumanized and killed during the Holocaust.

The memorials that stand in place of the many groups of victims embody the idea of loss itself. Stark stone columns, a dark pool surrounded by stone slabs… each memorial is dark, angular, and abstract in its concrete nature, seeming to reflect perhaps not the people themselves but their absence.

Berlin remembers…

Those who died attempting to escape from East to West during the Cold War

Berlin Wall Memorial
Berlin Wall Memorial
Illustration of the defensive layers around the wall
Illustration of the defensive layers near the wall
Preserved section of the Berlin Wall
Preserved section of the Berlin Wall
Recreated escape tunnel
Recreated escape tunnel

A photograph of each of these 136 people, including several children, is displayed in a memorial wall opposite a remaining section of the Berlin Wall, which was built in 1961 to prevent citizens of strictly controlled East Berlin from escaping into West Berlin. The Berlin Underworld Tour explains attempts (some successful) to tunnel under the wall or to make a break for it (mostly attempted by young East German military officers or subway staff) through “Ghost Stations,” or heavily guarded subway stops in East Berlin.

Berlin remembers…

Those who were considered a threat to life in the DDR (East Germany) by the Stasi

Gedenkstätte Berlin-Hohenschönhausen (Former Stasi Central Investigation Center and Prison)
Gedenkstätte Berlin-Hohenschönhausen (Former Stasi Central Investigation Center and Prison)
Single cell used in the 1940s
Single cell used in the 1940s
Cells from the 1950s-1980s
Cells used during the 1950s-1980s
"Tiger Cage" outdoor exercise area
“Tiger Cage” outdoor exercise area
Interrogation room
Interrogation room

The central investigation center of the Stasi, formerly a restricted area left conspicuously blank on maps, now serves as a memorial and museum, staffed by many former political prisoners who lead guided tours to educate the public about history and their personal experiences. From the end of WWII to the fall of communism in the late 1980s, anyone who was seen to be counter to the mainstream culture could be rounded up by specially recruited secret police and, through calculated physical and psychological torture, coerced into confessing to crimes against their country. The older and newer sections of the prison remain as they must have looked when in use, a powerful reminder to reflect on who the real threat is and how a way of life should be fought for.

Berlin remembers…

“Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.” – Primo Levi

May we all learn from history and remember what makes us human.

First Glance at Dresden on the Hottest Day of the Year

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Augustusbrücke

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Altstadt

Just before the Czech border along the Elbe River lies Dresden, a culture hub at the far reaches of former East Germany. We got our first overview of it last weekend shrouded in a thick haze and blazing sunlight, an unusual weekend that hovered around a consistent 100 degrees or so. The old town area of Dresden overflows with museums, theaters, concert halls and international restaurants. Classical-style sandstone buildings remain charred from the Second World War, standing in stark contrast to the cloudless blue skies.

Music poured from every corner of the city – a concert rehearsal occupied the Frauenkirche church, a small Czech choir practiced their repertoire as we visited the cathedral, rock concert-goers lined up for over a mile to get into an open air concert along the riverbank, and classical musicians played their violins in a shaded alcove of an old building.

We plan to return in December (maybe on the coldest day of the year?) to experience Dresden’s renowned museums and Christmas market.

Semperoper opera house
Semperoper opera house
Frauenkirche
Frauenkirche
Katholische Hofkirche (Dresden Cathedral)
Katholische Hofkirche (Dresden Cathedral)
Memorial chapel in the cathedral commemorating those who died in the 1945 bombing of the city (around 25,000)
Memorial chapel in the cathedral commemorating those who died in the 1945 bombing of the city (around 25,000)
Fürstenzug: mural showing the procession of the princes of Sachsen
Fürstenzug mural showing the procession of the princes of Sachsen
Oberlandesgericht (court house)
Oberlandesgericht court house
Court house from another angle
Court house from another angle

Before visiting the city itself, we had spent the earlier part of the day somewhat shaded by forest at the nearby Bastei (bastion). Unique rock formations jutted up among the trees and a few weather-/gradient-fearless climbers scaled their sheer surfaces. From every angle we had beautiful views of the Elbe and the surrounding sandstone mountains and forested countryside known as the Sӓchsische Schweiz (Saxon Switzerland).

Bastei rock formations
Bastei rock formations

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Views of the Elbe
Views of the Elbe

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A Venture into Former East Germany

Modern university mixed with old church in Augustusplatz, formerly Karl-Marx-Platz
Modern university mixed with old church in Augustusplatz, formerly Karl-Marx-Platz

I wasn’t familiar with the term DDR. In English, our abbreviation is GDR. Deutsche Demokratische Republik = German Democratic Republic. The former East Germany.

I had started taking German lessons when I arrived with several goals, one of the main ones being to be able to converse with James’s relatives in Germany. This past weekend, I felt that this goal had been achieved. Of course, still with a lot of room for improvement.

We had been kindly invited for a visit by relatives in Leipzig, four hours or so hours east of us. Now retired, they were born during World War II and lived in the DDR until Germany became reunited in 1990. In DDR times, children learned Russian as a foreign language in school, and citizens could only enter West Germany with special permission even if they had family members there. (The rest of this branch of the family was, in fact, scattered throughout West Germany.)

The highlight of the trip, of course, was getting to know these cousins and learning more about family history from a completely different perspective. We also had the opportunity to tour Leipzig and learn about the historical context of the city firsthand.

Café with medieval tower and flags for the World Cup
Café with medieval tower and flags for the World Cup

The main downtown area is a complete mix of old and new. A medieval tower on the corner of a modern café; a shopping center with a bar that Goethe used to frequent (and included in Faust); parts of a church left in the center of a main university building.

Leipzig currently has a large university student community, and people-watching was particularly interesting while we had lunch along the Marktplatz square by the old town hall. Colorful stockings, brightly-dyed hair, black clothes with buckles. A colorful cast of other non-university characters drifted through the square as well.

Altes Rathaus = Old Town Hall
Altes Rathaus = Old Town Hall

From a Hop-on Hop-off bus, one of the first sights we saw was the remains of the Hotel Astoria (now closed), covered in graffiti and short an “S.” But not far away we saw many extremely modern hotels, expensive riverside lofts, and extensive public parks.

The Leipzig Hauptbahnhof (main train station) is the largest terminus in the world. Sachsen, or Saxon, and Prussia operated two separate state railway systems from different wings of the building in the earlier half of the 20th century. Bombings during World War II badly damaged the Hauptbahnhof, but the glass and other structural features have since been restored.

Part of Leipzig Hauptbahnhof
Part of Leipzig Hauptbahnhof

Leipzig is also home to the Monument for the Battle of the Nations. Standing tall over a long pool, it commemorates the defeat of Napoleon’s armies in 1813. Russian, Prussian, Austrian, and Swedish forces had triumphed over French, Italian, Polish, and some Rheinland soldiers.

Monument to the Battle of the Nations
Monument to the Battle of the Nations
Bach's grave in St. Thomas Church
Bach’s grave in St. Thomas Church

We visited two churches that we had seen from the bus tour: One related to the Reformation and one to the Revolution against the DDR government.

The composer Johann Sebastian Bach had worked in both churches during the 18th century. In fact he is buried in St. Thomas Church, where Martin Luther had led his Reformation movement about 200 years earlier. The world-renowned St. Thomas Boys’ Choir was first formed here some 800 years ago.

In 1989, St. Nicholas Church was where the East German peaceful freedom demonstrations began. People filled the streets and walked through the city, ultimately gaining rights as East and West Germany became reunited a year later.

DDR protest mural
Freedom mural

One of the most striking sights I saw was an enormous mural, still in progress, depicting this nonviolent struggle to independence. Colorful people cover every inch of the side of a building, displaying their unity. Their absolutely cartoonish appearance belies the powerful messages in the mural. Asserting, accusing, demanding.

We are the people.”

“Fat cats in production.” “Stasi in the opencast mining.”

“The Wall must go.” “Visa free till Hawaii.” “New forum.” “Freedom of the press.” “Free elections.”

“No violence.”

“Democracy.”

Freedom.”

The whole mural (part of the middle remains to be filled in)
The whole mural (part of the middle remains to be filled in)