Camp Martin Travels

These entries will be a combination of historical day trips, graduate level travel courses, and just little stops along the way. I have been teaching 8th grade American History for over 25 years. I am also a Civil War Reenactor and have traveled to Germany and Austria with several groups of exchange students and written about our adventures. Please check all my posts by using the monthly Blog Archive tabs shown below. I have posted over 150 Blog Episodes since 2009... Please explore them all!

Saturday, December 29, 2012

An American in Germany / Part # 16 / Holocaust Shadows

GAPP Exchange Journal 2012
 In the Dark Shadow of History

The Quiet Bavarian Countryside
Southern Germany was one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen and yet for me, there was a subtle ever present grayness everywhere, just beyond of the reach of visible sight.  Most of our party probably didn't notice the shadows, but as a student of history, I could see and feel them almost everywhere I visited during my stay.  The country has been trying to rise from the rubble of World War II since the German Army finally submitted to unconditional surrender in May of 1945.  And in most instances, the country has dug in, rebuilt, and prospered.  However, the single link to the horrible war that the country has not yet distanced itself from is the ugly legacy of the Holocaust.  It is not something that is easy to forget nor something we should ever try to forget, making it forever present, despite the passing of time.  Adolf Hitler's unconscionable concept of industrialized genocide took the World War II Era to another level, so extreme, it is difficult to comprehend and fathom.  All wars are terrible but the Holocaust was especially heinous, the absolute demonstrative failure of humanity on multiple levels. Time is said to heal all wounds but the immense weight of the dark and evil tone associated with the cruelty of the Holocaust remains forever present, preserved in thought and monuments of stone.

Magazine Tower / Burial Site of Holocaust Victims
The concentration camps were incredibly widespread with small satellite camps providing slave labor to a variety of local war time industries, including an aircraft plant in Mühldorf producing the Messerschmidt BF-109 fighter planes.  When the allied troops liberated one concentration camp after another, they were appalled by what they found and equally shocked that the German people living nearby did nothing to stop it.  In some cases the local people were lined up and marched through the camps to see first hand what was going on behind the fences.  Furthermore, they were assigned to burial duty and bore the task of disposing of the emaciated and decomposing corpses.  Young boys who were members of the Hitler Youth were brought in to see the horrific atrocities that were the end result of Hitler's Final Solution.  The point was further driven home by transporting Holocaust causalities by the truck load to nearby towns and then having the local people bury them within a mass grave at a centralized location.  The intended message was clear... You also are to blame and must share the burden.  An example of this practice was in the historic town of Burghausen, which is most well known for having the longest medieval castle in the world, a major tourist attraction.  A major focal point of the castle is the large white magazine tower, which once served as a lookout, stored gunpowder, and housed various weaponry located just outside the exterior castle walls.  After 1945, it was also known as the location of a gravesite for victims of the Holocaust.
hrerbau / Surviving Nazi Building in Munich
I have long wondered how a nation can ever recover from such a dark legacy; can ever receive forgiveness; can ever again regain a true sense of national pride.  I appreciated the ability to discuss this topic with my host Andy Galeneder and several of his friends including Klaus Mittermeier, who were free and open to talking about this difficult topic.  I also appreciated the political and historical perspectives of Andy's wife Angela Schadhauser, who I also enjoyed learning from, concerning German life and history.  The result of our intellectual exchange for me personally was a new found understanding of the German perception of the Holocaust and the difficult necessity for them to keep the memories alive and forever present, however painful and shameful they may be.  It was my experience that Germans today take pride in the fact that they do not try to hide the crimes of the Holocaust and openly acknowledge it as a horrific event.  Although, many historians have said it is unfair to hold Germans today accountable for the sins of their fathers and grandfathers, it is still a heavy cross that they must bear and carry forward to future generations.  Most German school students frequently visit Holocaust sites on field trips in a continuous effort to educate the younger generations on the mistakes of their historical past.  The hope is to ensure the students will never forget what terrible things mankind was capable of allowing to happen in the past, so it will never happen again in the future.  It is a most important lesson that would suit all nations to learn and review.

German Flag of the Weimar Republic
Andy told me it was a rare thing to see the traditional black, red, and gold colors of the German flag displayed anywhere in Germany when he was growing up, not something practiced by the people since the beginning of the World War II Era.  The perception of anyone flying a German flag between the years of 1945-2000 could lead to an accusation of being a Neo-Nazi, and face certain scorn.  The flying of the flag and the concept of true patriotism were both traditions lost to the shame associated with the Third Reich.  However, all that changed in 2006 when Germany hosted the FIFA World Cup and suddenly the German people felt the need to bring forth their colors to support their team and nation.  The German team did well, finishing a respectful third place in the coveted soccer tournament that invited 32 teams from across the world.  Following the conclusion of the World Cup the flag continued to be flown in celebration of Germany's success and has stayed on display ever since.  It was a healthy outcome for the nation of Germany, a venue which helped provide the nation an opportunity to rediscover some sense of national pride and unity.  During our stay the 2012 Euro Cup was in full swing and the black, red, and, gold colors were seen proudly displayed everywhere.  I even purchased a German flag in the form of a hat to wear to the next soccer game accompanied by a flag colored lei necklace of cloth flowers hung around my neck to help root on Deutschland!
Hitler's Birthplace / Braunau, Austria
Several of my host teachers went out of their way to show me examples of Germany's efforts to pay tribute to the victims and the nation's acceptance for the responsibility for the Holocaust.  A good example of this open attitude in regard to the past was the day Wendy and I were treated to a tour of the beautiful city of Passau by hosts Wolfram and Elvira Englberger.  We stopped several times along the way to check out points of interest, including the village of Braunau on the Inn River, just inside the border of Austria.  It is a charming old town, complete with the traditional cobblestone paved market square, quintessential clock tower, and was enclosed by tall colorful interconnected buildings similar to Mühldorf.  Despite the town's beautiful urban landscape, the village has the unfortunate legacy of being forever known as the birthplace of Adolf Hitler.  It was something I had not been aware of until we arrived within the village.  The house was a little difficult to locate, as you would be hard pressed to locate it on a local map or find it designated in a travel brochure.  At first, we walked right past it, and then backtracked about 50 yards to a large yellow building that looked like a hundred other structures I had passed since arriving in Germany.  Another pair of tourists were in the location also trying to identify which building might be the possible location of Hitler's birth and were pointing to the yellow house.  There was no plaque or marking on the building designating it as having any association with Adolf Hitler but we then noticed a large stone monument resting on the sidewalk off to the right hand side of the building.  It was inscribed with a few words in the German language, which translates to... For Peace, Freedom, and Democracy... Never Again Fascism... Millions of Deaths Remind... 

Vacant Building of Hitler's Birth
The fate of the house is a good example of Austria's attitude toward a past associated with Adolf Hitler, World War II, and the Holocaust which the nation continues to struggle, comprehend and accept.  Some might suggest Austria was much slower than Germany in accepting responsibility for their association with the negative legacy of Third Reich and have only recently began to deal with the subject within the last decade.  After the war the yellow painted apartment house served as the town library, then a bank, offices for a charity, and even a school for children with learning disabilities, which I thought was ironic since such children were labeled as a liability to the future of Germany by the Nazi Regime.  Today the building is once again vacant and debate continues on just what to do with the property.  An effort by the town council to place a plaque on the building in 1983 was challenged in court by the owner, who did not want to draw additional negative attention to the building.  The owner won the case and a plaque has never been placed on the building.  However, in 1989 the newly elected mayor decided the site must be marked and ordered a large stone monument be placed at the site.  The request avoided legal protest because it was placed between the street and sidewalk, which is land officially owned by the public.  As a nice historical touch, the memorial stone was cut from a quarry located within a former concentration camp near Linz, Austria, where prisoners had quarried stone as forced labor.  Despite the building's bright yellow exterior, a darkness seemed to permeate from within the building's walls, which I experienced the entire time I stood within its presence.  For me, the building appeared sad and empty, containing an aura of despair.

Former Site of the Brown House
Nazi Party Headquarters in Munich
It was an uneasy feeling for me to be standing before the building where a young Adolf Hitler was brought into a world he would ultimately forever change.  It was strange to see the arched wooden doorway where he entered and exited the building.  The family only lived within a few rented rooms inside for a few years and then moved on to the city of Passau when Adolf was approximately three years old.  Yet it still cast an intense eerie feeling, to see the humble beginnings of a man who would grow up and become notorious as the greatest criminal in world history.  It is estimated that between 50-70 million people died worldwide as a result of World War II.  Can it be hypothesized that they all would have lived had he never been born within this simple house located on a quiet street, within a small village in Austria?  If only he were permitted to remain in the army following the First World War; If only he was admitted into art school in Vienna; If only he were stopped before he was unstoppable... If, If, If...  It is amazing to think about the impact one person can have on the world for good and unfortunately in this case, evil.  I really appreciated our host's willingness to show us something that might evoke negative feelings but they were open to showing both the positive and negative sides of their country's historical past and heritage.  Germany continues their efforts to show the world they openly acknowledge their past and hope to help educate the world of their country's role in World War II during the reign of Adolf Hitler.  In the city of Munich, the site of Hitler's office and the Nazi Party Headquarters known as the Brown House was mostly destroyed by allied bombing raids late during the war.  Since the rubble was carted away soon after the war, the former site has remained a vacant lot, void of any reference to the site's ominous past.  For over fifty years it sat empty, seemingly without any future use, and slowly became consumed by weeds.  However, times are changing... currently, a new museum is being constructed on the site, which will be known as The Nazi Documentation Center in Munich with the objective of educating the public on the consequences and repercussions of the Nazi Era in Munich.  The site is expecting to open to visitors in 2014.  Many of the people I met, who were mostly educators, took pride in the fact that modern Germany is striving to educate younger generations the hard lessons of tyrannical government and accompanying atrocities of the World War II Era. 

 Propylaen / Konigsplatz in Munich
Former site of Nazi Party Rally Events
Without the systematic extermination of millions of people based on their religion, ethnicity, handicap, sexual orientation, and many other characteristics, World War II may have gone down in history as just another horrific and terrible war.  If you subtract all the elements associated with the Holocaust from the event of World War II, how differently Germany would be historically judged today.  Why did it happen?  Why was it so important to the leadership of the Nazi movement?  What exactly were they really trying to accomplish?  Since 1945, thousands of books have been written about Adolf Hitler in an attempt to unravel the complexities of his unthinkable rationale.  In many ways, Hitler's inner circle themselves were so hypocritical in their effort to promote their perceived ideal of the Aryan Race.  In retrospect, few of them personally lived up to the utopian image they deemed as the superior race.  Many of the top Nazi leaders were short, had dark hair, brown eyes, a few were overweight or even rumored to be homosexual.  Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels suffered from polio as a child and was considered handicapped with a clubfoot, yet deemed many other handicapped people as unworthy of life and a burden on society.  Some of the first victims of the Nazi Regime were physically and mentally handicapped individuals who were legally murdered through the T-4 Euthanasia Program in Berlin.  It is estimated that 275,000 Germans with disabilities were purposely euthanized during the war and another 350,000 were subject to forced sterilization to prevent hereditary diseases and traits of disabilities to be carried to future generations.  However, this was not the case for Joseph Goebbels, for some reason he did not include himself in any of these categories.  In the end, he and his wife killed their six children and then minutes later, took their own lives in Berlin, during the final hours of the war.  He was unwilling to have any of them live within a world other than the one conceived by his twisted, hypocritical perceptions, which he attempted but thankfully, failed to create.

Altötting Town Hall Building
Another example of the fear within Germany was seen in the position taken by the Catholic Church concerning the actions of the Nazi party.  They denounced their violent actions but worked quietly behind the scenes to prevent the churches from being closed by Hitler altogether.  And as expected, individual priests and church officials who went further with their criticism were arrested, sent to concentration camps, and/or executed.  It is estimated that in Poland alone, the Nazi Regime killed approximately 3,000 Catholic clergy members, most in concentration camps.  Even as the end of the war loomed and the American troops and their allies were sweeping through southern Germany the ruthless Nazi Regime would make the decision to kill their own people.  Several of the town leaders of Altötting decided to light up the town at night as a symbol of surrender to protect the religious structures from allied bombing raids.  The intentions of the town leaders were carried by an unknown person to a small group of Waffen-SS soldiers who were staying at a monastery nearby.  They rounded up the town leaders and shot them execution style along the sidewall of the town hall and then cut the main electrical line to prevent Altötting from being spared during the bombing raids.  Despite the efforts of the sadistic soldiers, the townspeople placed candles in every window to light up the village and eventually the electrical line was repaired to save the famous churches from destruction, including the sacred Our Lady of Altötting Chapel. 

Stumble Stones of Regensburg
One of the most moving tributes to the victims of the Holocaust we came across during our travels were the Stumble Stones, seen while touring the historic streets of Regensburg.  The Stumble Stones were the creation of German artist Gunter Demnig, who researched the origin of multiple victims of the Holocaust from various backgrounds.  Next, he created small brass monuments each commemorating the innocent lives of those killed by the Nazi Regime. These brass markers are designed to attach over top of the square shaped crown of a single cobblestone.  He attached them to the street in front of their former homes or places of work before they were taken away to concentration camps.  Sadly, they never came home again, but at least now they will never be forgotten.  Despite their small size, they are an extremely powerful visual tribute to those who fell victim to the Final Solution.  It made the common obscure statistical numbers much more personal.  To think these were the names of the people who once lived here and were forced out through this very doorstep in front of me to be carted away and never seen again.  The artist has created and installed over 35,000 memorials to date and continues to create them.  Ironically, they were featured in the July 2012 edition of National Geographic Magazine, the first publication I happened to read after returning home from my trip.  It was a pleasant surprise to see something I had just witnessed in person in one of my favorite magazines.  I was glad to see the Stumble Stones and artist Gunter Demnig were getting some much deserved recognition and attention.        

Empty Monument Platform in Munich
In conclusion, I really grew to empathize with the German people, past and present, concerning the nation under the Nazi rule of Adolph Hitler.  In the end, the government they supported at first, created an environment of fear and consequent despair.  Anyone who questioned anything or spoke out in protest were sure to suffer the same fate of the other groups who were considered inferior or perceived as a threat.  It makes you wonder what was the whole purpose of Hitler's vision for the future of Germany?  Why would anyone want to live under the constant fear of an authoritative government reinforced by the sadistic Waffen-SS troops of Heinrich Himmler.  The frightening world from George Orwell's epic novel 1984 comes to mind.  One of the first bridges to forgiveness was when the American troops began to realize not all Germans were Nazis.  Most in the regular military were simply young men or even teenagers who were formerly simple farmers, factory workers, shopkeepers, or students.  Despite their lack of connection to politics or interest in Nazi ideologies they were drafted into service, many giving their lives for an obscure cause they may not have fully understood.  In many ways, the civilian population of Germany were prisoners themselves of the Nazi fascist agenda for the country and the world beyond.  How much did they really know of the crimes against humanity going on around them or were they simply in denial and didn't really want to know the truth.  Maybe the real question is what could they really have done to stop it?  Or was the Nazi leadership willing to give the order to kill anyone and everyone? 

 Looking Back Into History
Berlin Holocaust Memorial
(Photo Source / Chocolate Media)
In my opinion the German people may not be proud of their past, including the years leading up to and during World War II but do take tremendous pride in their openness and willingness to accept responsibility, especially concerning the Holocaust.  The gigantic monument to the victims of the Holocaust a few feet from the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin is a perfect visual example of their remorse.  All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men to do nothing...  Edmund Burke.

Adolf Hitler as an Infant Circa 1889
(Photo Credit / German Federal Archives)
Please Note: This article was written as commentary and is comprised of my own personal observations, opinions, and interpretations of historical events.  I used the personal stories I heard during my travels, the archives of the National Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., and various other historical sources as references to help provide the facts, figures, and statistical information contained within this essay.



Special Thanks to several historically minded editors who helped me navigate through this sensitive topic... I appreciated the constructive input from Andreas Galneder, Donald Miller, and Brett Miller who proofread the rough draft of this post prior to publishing.


Sunday, December 16, 2012

An American in Germany / Part # 15 / Eagle's Nest

GAPP Exchange Journal 2012
Berchtesgaden / Eagle's Nest

Bus Climb up Mountainside
The next stop on our tour of the Berchtesgaden area was a trip up high into the scenic Bavarian Alps to a location, which had some negative overtones attached.  We were about to visit a destination known as Kehlsteinhaus, or Eagle's Nest, the mountaintop retreat chateau of Adolph Hitler.  The Alps Mountains had been a longtime summer retreat for Hitler even before Eagle's Nest was built.  He had been coming to the area known as Obersalzberg on the southeastern German and Austrian border for years to spend time at his private residence known as Berghof, which also served as one of his main military headquarters during World War II.  Hitler had purchased the small chateau in 1933 using profits from the sale of his controversial book Mein Kampf (My Plan) and then greatly expanded the property adding several support buildings, a tea house, and increased security measures.  The Berghof was even featured in an edition of Britain's version of Better Homes and Gardens, which included an interview with Adolph Hitler as home owner and interior decorator.  Hitler entertained prestigious guests at Berghof including Nevil Chamberlain of Great Britain in 1938 and Benito Mussolini of Italy three years later.  Eva Braun, Hitler's longtime companion frequently accompanied the Füehrer during visits to his mountaintop retreat.  A new structure higher up on the Hoher Göll Mountain Range near Berghof began construction in 1937.  The new chateau was intended to be a gift from the people of Germany to commemorate Adolph Hitler's 50th birthday and was presented to him in April of 1939.  The project cost an estimated 300 million Deutschmarks when it was first built, equating to over 125 million American dollars today.  A pretty expensive man cave!

Tunnel Entrance to Eagle's Nest
Our bus driver Fitztum drove us to the Eagle's Nest Visitor's Center and bus breezeway where we would purchase our tickets to board buses that would take us the final leg up the mountain.  The four mile long road built up to Eagle's Nest was an engineering feat in itself, climbing 2,600 feet, passing through five tunnels carved through solid rock, and rounding one extreme switchback curve.  The 13 foot wide road is not open to the public, requiring transport on one of the site's red buses, unless you choose to walk up the steep pathway, which I was told takes a minimum of two hours.  No thanks!  Several of us quickly hit the souvenir shop nearby while we waited for our bus ride to arrive.  Many of us got the mandatory ice cream requirement crossed off our list and I was able to get my site souvenir pin for my collection.  We boarded our bus and began the steep ascent to the top, which was quite a climb, mere inches from the cliff's edge.  The panoramic view from the large windows of the bus was incredible.  Through the bottom glass panels of the bus door, you could see straight down over the road's edge into the abyss below.  It was easy to see why the road was not open to the public.  Along the way, a loudspeaker gave a short intro presentation of the site in several languages.  When we heard the English version, I was surprised that Adolph Hitler's association with the site was limited to a single sentence.  As I would learn throughout my travels, the legacy of Adolph Hitler was an avoided namesake, a persona associated with great shame and national despair for today's German population.  It was an ugly legacy they were all forced to bear, carry, and confront.  Yet Hitler was mostly an invisible ghost, disassociated with today's reinvented version of the Eagles Nest.

Crowded Elevator Ride to Summit
We arrived to a large paved area where the buses dropped off their passengers and almost had room to turn around... it was a tight fit!  The mountaintop breezeway offered an incredible view of the expansive surrounding landscape including deep valleys and snow capped mountain peaks.  However, we still had a little bit of a climb left to actually get to the chateau, located on the ridge just above our present location.  We entered into a 400 foot long tunnel carved straight into the solid rock of the mountain.  The tunnel was cool (nature's air conditioning) and damp with water drops falling caused by seepage of moisture contained within the mountain rock overhead.  We then hit a human traffic jam and patiently waited our turn to enter the large elevator that would lift us the final 400 feet directly into the interior of the chateau of Eagle's Nest.  The elevator shaft was one of the most difficult engineering tasks of the entire building project, with a dozen workers killed during the challenging construction process.  We were jammed inside the elevator like sardines but I still managed to contort my arm to take a picture of our group inside.  As soon as the flash went off, I was scolded in German by the elevator attendant who said something to the effect that flash photography was "verboten" inside the elevator.  I usually get scolded at least once when I go on a historical adventure, so I could now cross that off my list of accomplishments achieved in Bavaria!  The elevator car came to a slow stop and we exited into the interior of Kehlsteinhaus, which had been converted into a mountaintop restaurant and biergarten, touting incredible views from every table.         

 View from Eagle's Nest Beirgarten
We immediately made for the first exit of the chateau, more hungry to ingest the famous view outside than anything available on the menu.  It was breathtaking and impossible to describe in words or even pictures, it was something you could only truly appreciate in person, seeing it with your own eyes.  The chateau house itself was indeed now nothing more than a restaurant with no visible evidence or reference to its infamous past resident.  When the United States Army's 3rd Infantry Division eventually captured Berchtesgaden and consequently occupied Obersalzberg in May of 1945, they completely destroyed all structures associated with his main summer retreat and headquarters of Berghof.  The chateau complex and accompanying tea house were considered symbols of Hitler and his regime of the Third Reich and were subsequently demolished.  All that remained was the concrete outline of several foundations of the former buildings, which the West German Government had completely removed in 1952, hoping to disassociate the area from its infamous past resident.  Today the Berghof site is completely cloaked by new tree growth and has mostly been erased from the current landscape with the help of Mother Nature.  The decision to save the Eagle's Nest site from destruction was made based on the fact that Hitler actually spent very little time there.  It is estimated he only visited the site a total of ten times during his lifetime, never spending more than 30 minutes during any visit.  It was rumored Hitler avoided visiting Kehlsteinhaus due to his alleged fears of extreme heights, being killed by lightning, and getting stuck in the elevator.  So much for the superior race!  Since his visits were sparse and brief, the site was spared.  

 Kehlsteinhaus Teehaus Restaurant
Wendy had previously visited Eagle's Nest twice before, both times on rainy days, causing much of the spectacular view to remain hidden from view, cloaked by mist, clouds, and fog.  But today we were in luck, with relatively clear skies and low humidity, everyone was granted a fantastic view in all directions.  In a way, it was also Wendy's first real experience of actually getting to see and appreciate the legendary view from the heights of Kehlsteinhaus.  We skipped the cafe and headed straight for the rock pathway that led to ever higher observation points located along the top of the ridge.  At a height of over 6,000 feet, I noticed it was more difficult to breathe, resulting in a slow careful assent toward the top.  Maybe I was being paranoid or possibly it was just psychological but I wasn't sure how my body would react to being this high in the earth's atmosphere for the very first time.  I didn't want to pass out, fall off the edge of the earth, and become a statistical fatality for all eternity.  How do you say Epic Fail in German again?  The kids however, didn't seem to be having any trouble adjusting to the atmosphere change and were flying up over the steep rock formations like hyperactive monkeys on a jungle gym.  I just kept my own pace, feeling no pressure to be the first to plant the flag atop Mount Everest!  It wasn't a race worth running... or even walking at a brisk pace for that matter!  I'd get there... eventually!

Sam I Am with Feathered Friend
Reinhard, who was once again leading us through our visit, gave us an hour and a half to spend atop Eagles Nest.  At first I thought this sounded like a really long time to spend at such a small confined location, especially since we weren't planning on eating at the restaurant.  However, after I discovered all the incredible observation points located on all sides along the top of the ridge, I was going to be hard pressed to give them all adequate attention before the scheduled time of our descent.  Each spot faced a different angle of view, offering a unique perspective of the panoramic landscape.  You could just sit on a bench, relax, and absorb the spectacle, while your brain attempted to digest and comprehend the beauty before you.  Wendy had previously told me that longtime GAPP chaperone David Hoffman, who was Wendy's fellow German teaching colleague at the high school, never took many pictures during his later visits to Bavaria.  He said any picture captured by a camera could never match the level of grandeur compared with being there in person and seeing it with your own eyes.  I could now see what he meant first hand and could truly appreciate the concept.  Yet, being an amateur photographer, I couldn't resist the opportunity before me and had to at least try to capture the amazing scenery in digital form.  Actually, it wasn't that hard to persuade me since I took approximately 3,600 photos over my three week stay.  I was getting the chance to photograph things I had never seen before and may never get an opportunity to see again.  I think I made the most of it!

View of Lake Königssee from Above
As far as my hobby of photography was concerned, I was kind of like a kid in a candy store consuming German and Swiss-made chocolate by the gross!  Every evening I tried to download the images to my laptop and then post the pictures that met my level of quality to my online photo album site and then deleted the rest.  It allowed me to show my family back home what I was seeing and provided me a visual journal that would help me write my blogs later when time permitted.  The parents of our Warwick students also seemed to appreciate the ability to keep pace with some of our adventures by following the arrival of the newly uploaded picture sets each day.  From high above you could really see the extended patchwork quilt of the world below, containing patches of forest trees, farm fields, and quaint villages, which appeared to evenly cover the landscape to the distant line of the horizon.  The highlight in the valley below from one vantage point was Lake Königssee, which collected the melting winter ice and snow from the surrounding Alps.  Looking above, there were even higher peaks and steep rock formations visible, many still covered in snow.  You couldn't help but feel small and insignificant, a speck of color on the face of the world.  In the valley below we caught a glimpse of a few people para-sailing on the thermal updrafts.  They appeared so far away, almost impossible to see.  Yet, within minutes, they were soaring overhead, being lifted by the air currents thousands of feet into the air.  It was amazing to watch!

Eagle's Nest (Zoomed Image)
After absorbing as much of the incredible view as was photographically and mentally possible, it was time to make our trip back down the elevator and out the accompanying tunnel to catch the bus back down to the visitor's center.  Wendy, Reinhard, and I did our best to corral the troops, some of whom were eating inside the restaurant, while others were spread out along the top of the Hoher Göll Ridge.  Wendy and I swept the ridge from the crown of the mountain toward the knoll of the chateau, clearing the site of our Warwick students.  We took the elevator down and I was able to successfully suppress my urges for flash photography.  I was comically reminded by the kids...  It is Verboten!  The ride down on the bus was fast and furious as we once again flirted with death, skirting the edge of the curving road at speed.  After somehow arriving at the bottom safely, we had some time left before we were scheduled to return to Altötting.  Reinhard suggested we make a quick pit stop down by Lake Königssee, the body of water we had looked down upon from the summit a few minutes earlier.  Along the shore of the lake, we would be able to split up for some brief free time, get something to eat, and possibly do some tourist trap shopping.  Sounds like a plan!  We got a quick bratwurst-to-go from a sidewalk vendor and then found some shaded seats at a lakeside beirgarten where we indulged in some incredible rich desserts.  I was determined to try real apple strudel while in Bavaria and ordered a piece with vanilla "ice" accompanied by a hot cup of coffee.  It was delicious and really hit the spot!

Lakeside Apple Strudel and Ice
Lake Königssee seemed like a really neat place to visit and I wish we would have had more time to explore the area.  Most of the large twisting lake was concealed from view by the towering cliffs of the surrounding mountains.  Old fashioned wooden cruise boats were carrying passengers out across the water, curved around a bend, and then disappeared from site.  The best way to see the lake was to sail across it.  I hoped I would get the opportunity to visit Lake Königssee again before my stay in Germany came to an end.  Thankfully, I would later get that chance!  Stay Tuned!  As we headed out to retrace our route back home, an interesting rock formation came into view.  On our way toward Berchtesgaden, Reinhard was trying to point out a shape in the Alps that was known as the Sleeping Witch.  Most of us had trouble recognizing the ambiguous shape, which supposedly resembled a witch, lying down on her back sound asleep.  Luckily, on the way home we had the opposite view from the other side of the mountain and the rolling feature located along the top of the ridge was plain as day and easy to recognize.  It really did look like a scary old witch, complete with the iconic crooked nose and pointed chin, peacefully resting on her back.  I was just hoping we would lose her in our rear view mirror before she woke up! 

 Sleeping Witch Mountain (Zoomed Image)
Please stayed tuned for the next installment of our adventure!




Monday, December 10, 2012

An American in Germany / Part # 14 / Berchtesgaden

GAPP Exchange Journal 2012
Berchtesgaden / Salt Mine Tour

On the Road Again with Fitztum
Today the Warwick students were headed off on their first class field trip adventure to tour several popular attractions in the Berchtesgaden area.  We all clamored aboard the Beck tour bus piloted by a familiar face.  Fitztum was the friendly bus driver who had previously driven us from the Munich Airport to Altötting when we first arrived.  He would be our driver for all our group transportation needs while in Germany.  Today our day trip was led by KKG English teacher Reinhard Wagner who was first taking us to tour an underground salt mine.  The salt industry was the backbone of the area's economy and an extremely valuable trade item throughout the regions long history.  It was so precious, it gained the nickname white gold.  The bus ride was very entertaining with incredible views through the bus windows, providing an endless show of beautiful landscapes.  We passed by several quaint villages, market squares, rural farms, and increasingly incredible mountain views.  As the distant Alps got closer and came into view, the students perked up, cameras came out, and questions were asked.  For many of our students, this was their first real view of the prestigious Bavarian and Austrian Alps.  They were so impressive, serving as a surreal backdrop for several small housing communities and isolated rural farms.  It must be amazing to wake up every morning, walk out your front door, and look out over such a breathtaking dreamlike landscape.  I could only imagine what the view might look like during the other three seasons of the year.  I can't believe I am here... 

Salzach River through Berchtesgaden
We headed into the valley of Berchtesgaden where the Bad Reichenhaller Salt Company has been extracting the valuable mineral from the Alps Mountains for the past 500 years.  Originally the salt was removed through old school pick and shovel hard rock dry mining.  However, today the salt is removed from the mountains through a process known as wet mining where water is pumped into open caverns within the rock walls.  Later the liquid brine is withdrawn from the cavern and is then pumped through pipelines to the processing plant where the brine is converted back into a solid form.  The recrystallized salt is further milled into the desired granulated size according to the customer's preference.  Over 300,000 cubic meters of salt brine is extracted annually from the Bavarian Alps, most of which is naturally processed into fine table salt.  So in a way, white gold continues to be the mainstay of the local economy, mined from the same mountain locations for multiple centuries.  The vast mining operation has continuously infused mineral wealth into the local area since the year 1517.  Today a portion of the complex tunnel system has been turned into an underground mine tour and museum.  Over 400,000 visitors a year are transported by rail approximately 1,000 feet underground for a guided hour long tour.  We pulled into the parking lot of the Bad Reichenhaller Salt Mine, where we would soon head underground in search of white gold!

Bad Reichenhaller Salt Mine
Reinhard led our group into the waiting area where tickets for the group were purchased for a scheduled tour of the mine.  The mine even had a little salt cubed animated mascot name Salz, who helped point the way through the process.  As our time approached, we were all surprisingly fitted with a mining suit of work overalls, mandatory apparel for the trip underground.  How realistic was this tour?  Were we all going to work for wages?  How soon can I ask for a day off?  We all got into our miner's garb and admired each other in our new industrial "digs"... No pun intended!  We had a lot of individual and group portrait photographs taken of our new outfits to document our time as hard core laborers in Bavaria.  It would be the last pictures I was allowed to take since photography was "verboten" during the mine tour.  We assembled as a group in the waiting area of a narrow gauge railway and prepared to take the trip into the darkness of the mountainside.  Our dark blue mining suits with white reflective stripes were getting a little hot, especially when properly zipped up to the neck.  A train emerged from the dark tunnel filled with a group of happy senior citizens who were laughing and full of smiles.  I guess we could handle this...  We all jammed ourselves into the multiple train cars to fill every space.  Another small group arrived and merged with ours, filling the train to the maximum number of passengers.  Our additional tour members also appeared to be a group of senior citizens.  I was feeling more confident by the minute!  Time to go to work... All Aboard!   

Hi-Ho Hi-Ho It's Off to Work We Go!
Suddenly a small man appeared, dressed in a blue uniform and adorned with an official looking cap.  Our tour guide had apparently arrived and what he lacked in height, he more than made up for with his loud strong voice.  We received some general safety instructions for the train ride into the mine along with a short introduction to the tour.  Our tour guide took his seat on the small locomotive in front of our train car and began to move toward the extremely narrow tunnel entrance.  I couldn't help but start humming the theme song to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.   The train rapidly picked up speed to a surprisingly fast velocity and I began to feel like I was on a roller coaster.  I couldn't help but show my bravery by raising my arms in the air, an action repeated by several of our students seated behind me.  It was surprisingly fun!   I was instantly aware of the comfortable cool temperature inside the tunnel, exaggerated by the speed of the train.  It was a very refreshing contrast to the stuffiness of the hot waiting room where we boarded the train.  It was my first time experiencing air conditioning in Germany, even though it was just a natural coincidence...  I'll take it!  The mine was a constant 53 degrees all year round and was a welcome break from the hot 90 + degrees outside.  I could have just curled up in a corner somewhere and fell sound asleep!  The train came to a stop within a large cavernous room where the official tour would begin.  The room suddenly went dark and a narrated presentation began that consisted of a laser light show demonstrating the process involved in wet mining.  The cavern appeared to fill with water, the salt began to crystallize, and eventually the salt brine drained from the space.  It was an excellent visual representation of how salt gets extracted from the mountain using the wet mining technique and really kept our groups attention.

Salt Cathedral Cavern Slide
(Photo Credit / Salt Mine Berchtesgaden)
Following the high tech introduction, our guide demonstrated the best way of getting to the bottom of the cavern, where the tour continued from below.  There was a gigantic sliding board made of dual polished wooden rails that sent you hurling all the way to the bottom at breakneck speed.  There was even a surprise camera system to capture your excited expression mid-slide, which I imagine are much more commonly found at amusement parks thrill rides than mine tours.  It was tempting but I decided to take the long, slow way down by way of a steep walking ramp and watched the kids have their fun from the bottom.  However, when I saw the senior citizens start flying down the slide, I was suddenly feeling extremely old and began to regret my decision.  I was starting to take a U-turn at the urging of the kids to go back up the steep hill but the tour guide began to lead the group through the next tunnel.  Oh well, live and learn!  We were soon shown several religious themed monuments within the salt tunnel, which blessed the safety of the past miners, which hopefully also included present tourists.  Next, we explored the salt storage vault known as the Treasure Vault where there were multiple interactive displays explaining everything you ever wanted to know about sodium chloride and more.  We examined some antique early mining equipment and a large brass pump that was engineered to pump salt brine to the surface of the mine where it would then be piped to the factory for processing.  We continued onward through the expansive twisting tunnels and accompanying exhibits when suddenly we came to another slide!  Step aside grandma, this time I was going for it!

The View of Mirror Salt Lake
(Photo Credit / Salt Mine Berchtesgaden)
The kids were encouraging the old guy (me) to take the plunge and several joined me to take the descent toboggan style to increase our velocity.  It was really a lot of fun even though it wasn't quite the length and height of the first slide.  We were now within a dark space and when the lights came on a huge open cavern was revealed that was extremely wide and yet not very high.  The cavern was completely filled by a tranquil body of still water known as Mirror Lake.  Our tour guide got everyone seated on a large wooden raft like boat and then disappeared entirely from view.  The water looked so inviting, I found myself thinking it would be a really cool place to go for a swim.  The boat began to slowly move forward as the main lights went off and colorful bright colored dots began appearing on the ceiling above.  The flashing lights overhead were accompanied by electronic music and were soon joined by lines of light resembling the shape of salt crystals along the side wall.  The lights continued their energetic dance to the quick pace of the music, as we glided across the dark lake.  When we arrived on the far side of the water at the landing dock, all the lighted shapes went dark for a few seconds.  Suddenly our playful tour guide reappeared a few feet from the front of the raft, illuminating his face with a flashlight, eliciting a few giggles from ladies who were sitting up front.  He was a great tour guide and seemed like a really nice guy despite times where he appeared a little creepy, which I think was part of the act!  He did a great job interacting with our kids, joking around, and keeping them entertained during the hour long tour.

 Salt Deposit / Mining in North America
(Map Credit / Salt Institute Trade Association)
As we exited the raft, there was a small faucet running on the dock, filling a trough with water from the lake.  We were all encouraged to stick our finger under the falling water for a taste.  It was incredibly salty and was actually the brine we had been learning about, which contained a salt content of over 26 percent.  The saltiest major ocean in the world is the Atlantic, which has a salt content of about 3.5 percent, so you can imagine the taste... It was awful!  White gold tastes terrible!  I guess it wasn't such a great place to take a swim after all!  We entered into the mine tunnel again, which had all been carved through solid red colored rock salt.  One of our students decided to lick the wall to taste the mine itself... you know who you are... Gross!   I myself, had had enough of salt and was beginning to get extremely thirsty, craving an ice cold Coca-Cola Light!  There are major salt deposits all over the world, including the United States.  Geologists from the University of Michigan have estimated there are untapped salt deposits in the Detroit area equating to 71 trillion tons of sodium chloride.  Something to consider as a backup industry for the Motor City, just in case the automotive market starts to fizzle again.  We wound up at an elevator shaft and piled into two large square cars that were attached to an incline railway.  The smooth ride back to the top on the incline elevator seemed a welcome technological advance compared with the incredibly steep, rickety, wooden steps that we watched pass by through the side window.  I could picture the exhausted miners climbing the steep grade of steps with heavy feet at the end of a long shift.  No Thanks!

Berchtesgaden Salt Mine Tunnel Exit
We found our way back to the beginning of the tour where our train was waiting to take us back up to the surface.  The ride back was equally as fun, flying through the narrow tunnel until daylight could be seen in the distance... Hence, the light at the end of the tunnel.   The locomotive eventually pulled us out into the warm sunlight of the outside world again.  Hey, what happened to the air conditioning?  We pulled into the rail station located just inside the mine entrance and received a small salt shaker of Bad Reichenhaller Salt as a token parting gift.  It reminded me of the small piece of chocolate you get at the end of the educational ride at Hershey Chocolate World, except you couldn't eat it.  Anybody have a roasted ear of corn on the cob I could have... and a stick of butter?   Berchtesgaden Salt Mine was really a fun experience for all.  Our kids really had a great time during the tour and were really well behaved.  Our tour guide even complimented Wendy and I on our students attention and polite behavior during the tour.  Something he confessed, he doesn't always see with school groups.  Wendy and I both really appreciated our students acting like young ambassadors of our country, state, and school.  Good impressions go a long way in a foreign land.  Now it was time to leave the salt mine to visit our next destination on today's agenda. We had just visited the extreme bottom of the Berchtesgaden area, and now it was time to scale to the extreme heights, located up above in the peaks of the Alps Mountains.   Stay tuned for our visit to Adolph Hitler's mountain top headquarters and retreat known as the Eagles Nest...

Chaperone Miners Wendy and Reinhard
Please stayed tuned for the next installment of our adventure!




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