The Key to Door County

Many in the tourism industry descibe Door County as the mid-western equivalent of Cape Cod, and they make a valid point. If Cape Cod is the crooked finger beckoning the Atlantic Ocean, then Door County is Wisconsin’s thumb poking the western side of Lake Michigan. Both peninsulas offer a laid-back vibe, with historic beachtown pearls bordering sandy, rocky beaches.

We began our tour by exploring our home base in Kewaunee, a southern border town below the county line.

Grandpa clock

We knew nothing about the clock, so it took us by surprise. At noon, it chimed over and over again, then played a “bell” rendition of Amazing Grace.

clock graphic

A short walk to the waterfront brought us to the Ludington. Retired in 1998, the tug saw action during the D-Day invasion at Normandy by pushing barges of ammunition across the English Channel, and later as a construction tow for the Army Corps of Engineers.

Ludington

Tug graphic

Like most newcomers, we got our coastal orientation by walking out to Pierhead Light, 

pierpoint light

but following the path was like a twisted game of minefield hopscotch.

shitty path

Ellis Street was closed to traffic for a smallish classic car show that appealed to locals, auto enthusiasts from Green Bay, and bloggers…

Main St. car show

Main St. Kewaunee

beep beep

with plenty of space for antique tractors and snowmobiles in the parking lot.

and tractors too

Further up the coast sits Algoma, a town with a Crescent Beach Boardwalk that parallels an arc of sand and polished stones, and the Algoma Pierhead light that welcomes hundreds of roosting gulls at any time.

Algoma Pierhead light

With so much ground to cover and little time to spare, we detoured along the coastal county roads to Sturgeon Bay, a town with a rich ship-building legacy and a lust for shopping. While not my favorite activity, we parked the F-150 and strolled the sidewalks, passing through galleries and home furnishing boutiques.

Local artists brought their imagination and decorating prowess to town, converting plain Adirondack-style chairs (or created a chair/bench of their own) for the inaugural CHAIRies, a public art project on display at most downtown corners, and a nod to the bountiful cherry groves scattered throughout the peninsula.

Sturgeon Bay.jpg

Continuing north, Jennifer (GPS) directed us to Cave Point County Park, the only county park within a state park (White Dunes State Natural Area).

Geologic History of Cave Point

Diving into Cave Point’s roiling water is a well-known proving ground and badge of courage for daring teenagers…

splash recovery

who are fortunate to clear the cliffs or avoid the crashing waves.

splat

wave cove

Riding north on WI-57, we cut through the middle of Door County’s thumbnail, and headed for Northport, known for ferry service to Washington Island at the tip of the peninsula. and the gateway to Death’s Door, a legendary passageway with a washing- machine turbulence that has shipwrecked many 19th century schooners.

Cormorant Island and Death's Door

We rushed along WI-42 from Northport down Green Bay’s sidelines, needing to reach the Airstream end zone after a long day of driving, but deliberately slowing around a bendy stretch of road nearby.

road prose

road to Northport

Then we were dodging and weaving our way through a variety of pedestian-rich towns at 10 mph, absorbing the downtown charm of Ellison Bay, Sister Bay, Ephraim, and Fish Creek from the front seat of our truck.

We vowed that we would return the following day for a glorious sunset dinner, as we settled on leftover pizza and samosas under a cloudy sky.

 

 

Ashland Walls and Trash Cans

While staying in Bayfield, Leah and I learned of Ashland’s Mural Walk. While only a half-hour from our camp site, we were so preoccupied with three full days of hiking, biking, and kayaking around the Apostle Islands, that time became a factor.

When asking around about the murals’ merits, someone local described the trip as “interesting”, so we decided to make an informed opinion for ourselves. Since Ashland was on our way from Bayfield to Munising, we boarded the Airstream, checked out of Apostle Island Area Campground, and followed GPS to Ashland Mural Walk. An actual POI pinged when I asked Jennifer (our GPS coach) for the route.

We had completed a previous mural walk in Palatka, Florida, also a county seat, and found it odd that their murals were in better shape than the town. We wondered if this was also the case in Ashland.

Ashland’s history dates to 1500, when the Ojibwe stayed on Chequamegon Point. A century later, they were followed by French fur trappers, European traders, and Jesuit missionaries. By mid-1800’s, Ashland’s first settlement was established, and the town prospered as a major quarry and port with rail service to Chicago.

Thanks to mural artists Kelly Meredith and Susan Prentice Martinsen, Ashland’s murals are a pleasant recapitulation of their proud history and their community spirit.

military service.jpg

women of influence

occupations

Main St.

landmarks

keepers

harbor vessels

gingerbread

Ashland Oredock

3 Waitresses

lifestyle.jpg

Corner mural

The murals have been beautifying downtown for twenty years. But Ashland wasn’t content to rest on its murals. Since 2017, decorative mosaic containers have been popping up on Main Street, turning trash to treasure.

mosaic 1

mosaic 2

mosaic 3

There are 18 murals located around an 8-block radius of Main Street’s business district.

Leah and I gave ourselves an hour to see as many as we could (we found 12), but a 4-hour drive to Musining still loomed large, so six were left undiscovered.

For additional information on mural titles, descriptions, and locations, or to see what we missed, a Mural Walk link is provided.

Northlanders

Seemingly, Duluthians have only two seasons: winter and summer. During the 2018- 2019 weather calendar, city residents shoveled snow from October 10 to May 9, breaking a record dating back to 1884. Temperatures were moderate for the remaining months of the year.

But when the last snow melted, the Northlanders traded their shovels and skis for bicycles and hiking shoes–eager to take advantage of the wealth of recreational resources in the vicinity.  Leah and I sampled some of the more popular options during our recent visit.

The 70-mile Hinkley-Duluth segment of the Munger State Trail offers hiking, biking, in-line skating and snowmobiling on a fully paved road, cut through a forested ridge that follows a busy railway.

Leah and I cycled a scenic 8-mile stretch from Buffalo Valley Camping (our temporary home) to the Carlton terminus,

Carlton

where the trail parallels Forbay Lake…

St. Louis River calm

until it crosses a nearby St. Louis River dam release.

St. Loius rapids

Flow beyond the bridge

Lunch at Magnolia Cafe in Carlton gave us the energy we needed to pedal back to camp. Kudos on the cold-brewed coffee and gluten-free chocolate chip cookies.

Leah and bike

With our energy restored, we drove to Duluth in search of craft beer. Despite a population center under 90,000, Duluth has earned a reputation as Minnesota’s capital of craft beer, boasting more than a dozen production facilities in the area that are eagerly taking advantage of Lake Superior’s pristine waters.

Fitger’s Brewhouse is the oldest and perhaps the most famous active brewery,

inside Fitger's

dating back to 1881…

boilers

with over 100 original recipes…

Fitger varieties

still brewed at its present location along the Lakewalk.

Fitgers (2)

For views of the city, nothing beats Enger Tower, the highest point in Duluth,

Enger Tower1

Enger plaque (2)

and no better place to see where the city opens up to the sea,

Superior Bay

while revealing its industrial underbelly.

grain silos



The following day, we were looking for a short but moderate morning hike. All internet indicators pointed to Ely’s Peak, a popular trail reached by following the abandoned Duluth, Winnipeg, and Pacific (DWP) railroad corridor to the entrance of a 1911 railroad tunnel.

railroad tunnel

The trail was named after Rev. Edmund Ely of Massachusetts,

tunnel

whose mission was converting the Fond Du Lac Native Americans during the mid-1800s.

graffiti

From the tunnel to the top and back is 1.8 miles. The loop takes hikers on a 300 ft. ascent offering far-reaching views of the Fond du Lac Reservation and beyond.

view from Ely's Peak

We spent the afternoon touring Glensheen, a 20,000 sq ft. Beaux-Arts-styled mansion surrounded by a 12-acre estate…

landscape plan

built beside Lake Superior between 1905 and 1908 by Clarence Johnston, Sr…

garden and boathouse

for Chester Adgate Congdon and family.

Congdon family tree

The 39-room historic mansion is reknown for its design and craftmanship of the day…

mansion front

mansion garden

and that almost nothing from William French’s orginal interior design has changed in 110 years–down to the furniture placement…

breakfast room

and the accessories that adorn the house.

drawing room

But the most unusual part of the tour was what Nick, our docent would not share with the group when asked about the murders of Elisabeth Congdon and her private nurse, Velma Pietila.

Instead, we were referred to a brochure card with a disclaimer and few details.

murder2 (2)

It was a brutal crime that was sensationalized by the media, and still remains unsolved.

Leah and I concluded our day sitting in stadium chairs by the Glensheen boathouse pier, noshing on local food truck fare while listening to Charlie Parr, a local folk singer performing an evening of Minnesota moonshine music to kick off the 5th season of Concerts on the Pier.

Glensheen armada

It was the perfect way to end the day:

enjoying the sunshine and the breeze coming off the lake;

meeting and appreciating new people around us;

watching a mish-mash of vessels manuevering through an ad hoc harbor;

and being interviewed by Ryan Juntti, for WDIO’s 6:00 PM News.

 

 

Have an enjoyable and safe weekend.

Wise Guys

Although it’s been two years since Leah and I visited Mt. Rushmore, what could be more American than re-posting this visit on Independence Day?


 

There’s no better way to celebrate the 4th of July, than a trip to Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial. Sure, the crowds were large; that was to be expected. But once the cars were garaged, the pedestrian traffic was easy to negotiate. And with everyone looking up at the mountain, the Presidents’ faces and intentions were never obstructed.

GW

Jefferson

Roosevelt

Lincoln

It was also a time to celebrate family. There were plenty of kids riding in strollers, hanging from moms in carriers, or balancing on dads’ shoulders. Generations of families–many of them immigrants–had gathered to pay homage to the principles of freedom that make our country a beacon for the oppressed and downtrodden.

Seniors were being escorted through the Avenue of Flags by their grandchildren. Extended families organized group pictures at the Grand View Terrace, unified by their love of democracy and their reunion T-shirts.

All expressed awe at Gutzon Borglum’s grand vision and remarkable achievement–the transformation of a mountain into a national symbol visited by approximately 3 million people every year.

long shot

The 14-year process of carving the rock began with dimensionalizing the Presidents’ portraits through Plaster of Paris masks, on view at the sculptor’s studio-turned-museum.

Sculptor's Studio

Additional exhibits detail the construction of the memorial, and the tools used by workers, like the original Rand & Waring compressor, which powered the jackhammers for all the finishing work.

compressor

A little known fact is that Mt. Rushmore was once intended to be a tribute to the “Five Faces of Freedom,” but funding ran short when the Congressional appropriation approached $1 million during the Great Depression. Hence, the unfinished carving of the Great Ape to the right of Lincoln serves as a reminder that we are never far from our true ancestors.¹

Planet of the Apes

No less ambitious, and equally as impressive, the Crazy Horse Memorial is a work-in-progress located 16 miles away in the heart of the Black Hills–considered sacred land by the Lakota people.

Crazy Horse LS

Conceived by Korczak Ziolkowski in early 1940s,

crazy horse model (2)

the memorial, when completed will stand 563 ft. by 641 ft. across, and is expected to be the largest sculpture in the world. Already, the completed head of Crazy Horse measures 60 feet tall…

Crazy Horse CU

…twice the size of any of the presidents at Mt. Rushmore. While the first blast was conducted on the mountain in 1947, the current prospects for the memorial are to complete the outstretched arm during the next twelve years. There is no completion date available for the finished carving, which has been financed entirely by private funding since its inception.

Mt. Rushmore was created by a Danish American. Crazy Horse was created by a Polish American. And visitors to both destinations manifest the melting pot that has brought us all together as Americans. It’s our diversity that makes us strong, our ambition and determination that makes us great, and our compassion and sacrifice that make us whole.

These are the values reflected from the faces we’ve immortalized in stone. Yet, we would honor them more by living according to these principles.

Happy Birthday, America!

fireworks1

¹ Just kidding, but the photograph is real and has not been retouched.

Duluth Cakewalk

After one month of travelling along Lake Ontario, Lake Huron, and Lake Superior in Canada, we crossed the border into Grand Portage, Minnesota to continue our Great Lakes circumnavigation through the States. We made Duluth our first stop.

Our reservations, made months ago, took us to Jay Cooke State Park–about 10 miles south of Duluth– where we planned to camp five nights through July 4th, but not without sacrifices.

RV enthuthiasts would agree that a level pull-through site with electric, water, and sewer is the norm for comfortability. But a site that also offers cable TV service with highspeed internet is the Holy Grail. Sadly, Jay Cooke was offering us a back-in site with 30 amp service only…for three nights. The other two nights, we were assigned to a primitive site inside the park with no amenities. This was the best Jay Cooke State Park could offer, considering the popularity of the park and high demand for the holiday week.

Originally, we called around to other area campgrounds and RV parks hoping for better accomodations, but found no availability anywhere else. By default, we accepted our fate and placement at Jay Cooke, and considered ourselves fortunate to find any place at all to park our Airstream during Independence Day festivities.

St. Louis River

We crossed the border into Central Time, and surrendered an extra hour of daylight in exchange for arriving at the park office during operating hours, and giving Leah one last chance to modify our reservation.

Not a chance; the park was completely booked! We were directed to site 38 for three nights, and redirected to site 66 for the balance of our time.

After 40 minutes of queueing to fill our tank with fresh water, we eventually found site 38 down a very narrow access road lined with crowded spruce trees. No matter how many times I tried, and I tried, I couldn’t swing 28 feet of Airstream plus bicycles into a shallow site without sacrificing my truck to the evergreens. Simple physics wouldn’t allow it.

Leah sought a refund, while I investigated last-hope possibilities, nearby.

As if by magic, I called Darren at Buffalo Valley RV Camping, only a few miles away, who minutes ago received news of a cancellation. And just like that, we had a new address…with electricity AND water.

Leah and buffalo

The following day, Leah and I strolled along the first two miles of Duluth’s 7.5 mile Lakewalk, stretching from Canal Park through Leif Erikson Park to Lester Park.

Duluth skyline

Starting out at Canal Park, I was drawn to Duluth’s iconic Aerial Lift Bridge that guards the entrance to Superior Bay,

Aerial Bridge

supported by two sentry lighthouses that jet out to meet Lake Superior.

Lighthouses

Originally conceived as America’s first transporter bridge in 1905, passengers and freight were ferried across in a large gondola.

Aerial_bridge_car,_Duluth,_Minn._c1908

In 1930, the bridge was reimagined with a vertical lift,

bridge elevator

Aerial Lift Bridge

and continues to operate much the same way to date.

bridge details

The warm air prompted scores of beachcombers to scramble across the rocks in search of beach glass,

coastline enjoyment

beach combers

while a few brave souls channeled their inner polar bear by swimming out to “the cribs” in frigid water.

the cribs

We followed the Lakewalk to Fitgers with a few notable detours along the way.

Canal Road bas relief brickwork

Free samples were irresistable at Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, and star-gazing at Duluth Trading Company…

Duluth Trading

proved to be enriching…

bullpen

and eye-opening.

customer

More on Duluth…

 

Thunder Mountain

From a distance, Mt McKay is imposing, rising 1200 ft over Lake Superior and making it the largest of the Nor’Wester mountains. It gets its name from William Mackay, a Scottish fur trader from the mid-1800s, who lived for a time in the Fort William vicinity.

However, the Fort William First Nation, descendents of the Chippewa tribe, call the mountain Anemki Wajiw (ah-NIM-ih-key waw-JOO), meaning Thunder Mountain,

Thunder Mountain

and consider it sacred land.

In Honor of Our Ojibwa Elders

Mt McKay is a prominent landmark of the Fort Williams First Nation reserve, and offers sweeping views of Thunder Bay…

plane landing

from its boardwalk overlook on the eastern plateau…

boardwalk to overlook (2)

and beyond…

Fort William First Nation

Leah and I drove up Mission Road to a toll house, where a First Nation member collected $5.00. She advised us to hike the western trail to the flat cap for more commanding views, and encouraged us to return in 3 days to witness a powwow of the Lake Superior chapters. She also offered a menu and invited us to visit her lunch counter in town.

The trail was narrow, steep and challenging with shards of shale scattered over rocky formations. We took our time.

After a weary climb of 40 minutes, we welcomed the cooler air around us as we crossed onto a plate of volcanic rock formed over 1,100 million years ago.

Leah and me

The bright sun promised a crisp and dazzling vista,

Thunder Bay overlook

but it also seemed to energize the horse flies that soon regarded me as bait.

harbor view

That’s when I knew it was time to retreat to the bottom of the hill, oh-so-gingerly over long drops onto loose shale.

Once we landed at the trail head, I had decided (after checking with Leah) that we should attend the powwow on Satuday.



On the day of the powwow, we looked for news on the internet. and it was everywhere. The council was expecting over 5,000 attendees over two days with plenty of drumming and dancing. Food tents and crafts stalls would round out the affair. The rules were simple: No Alcohol. No Drugs. No hiking. Have a Safe Time.

We drove to Fort Williams First Nation ice arena, where we met a yellow school bus that shuttled us the rest of the way. Only three days ago, the area was empty and quiet, but today, it looked like a parking lot next to a fairground with fringe tents and trailer camping.

Participants were gathering inside the spirit circle and adjusting their costumes, while spectators were filling the grandstands, and the royalty was assembling in anticipation of the welcoming ceremony.

Welcome ceremony

It was a colorful and festive affair. A steady drum beat managed by eight drummers, accompanied a caterwauling chant of guttural highs and lows and occasional shrieks.

drum circle

After a prolonged opening procession and invocation, Chiefs and Elders presented flags,

Chiefs

and then it was time to drum and sing and dance again. Grass dancers followed Elders…

grass dancers

who were followed by family members…

procession

who also danced several times around the pavillion with their children…

father and son

tiny dancer

showing off their feathers,

eagle feathers

their elaborate ceremonial costumes…

teal man

red costume

blue costume

and their elaborate moves…

Little Bear 2

Little Bear

Little Bear 1

After a couple of hours, Leah and I returned to the boardwalk for a stroll to the memorial,

WW1 Indian memorial

where we discovered a trail to the right that hugged the cliff around the plateau. We hiked further along, scouting for poison ivy as we walked, and came to a clearing where three girls in training bras were sneaking cigarettes around a slab of concrete.

It was an amusing irony and signaled our time to return to the ice arena. The school bus that brought us circled the field–collecting passengers–and momentarily paused at a graphic display of Ojibwe insight and life lessons:

Ojibwe Code

They are good words to live by!

Neys Provincial Park

Dear Diary,

Today was unsettling, as nothing went as planned.

A high probability of intermittent rain had been forecasted throughout the day, which gave us very few options. Although we were snug in our pull-through campsite overlooking the northern boundary of Lake Superior from Neys Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada, we were looking forward to exploring the stark coastal beauty of an area once known from 1941 to 1946 as Neys Camp 100–an internment facility for German POWs and Japanese Canadians.

detention sign

Prisoners arriving (2)
Kreigsmarine and Luftwaffe prisoners of war arriving at Neys, ca. 1941

Prevailing wind from the west had whipped up whitecaps across the water, and threatening skies promised to restrict our outdoor time, but we were determined to make the most of current conditions: buggy, chilly, yet dry.

Terrace Bay

A short walk to the Visitor’s Centre for sight-seeing suggestions proved useless since the door was locked–maybe from campground inactivity, I surmised. There was, however, an interesting park bench design overlooking the lake by Sean Randell. 

Trout bench Neys PP

With 144 sites covering 4 areas, Leah and I spotted less than a dozen occupied sites. Many of the seasonal campers left their trailer set-ups behind for greater comforts nearby. With electricity only provided at less than half the sites, we had the showers practically to ourselves.

We were determined to get a hike in, so we selected the 1 km Dune Trail loop for its brevity (in case of sudden rain), and our fascination with sand dunes by the lake. We followed each other single file through a skinny path snaking through a plantation of red pines and a forest floor of lichens, mosses, and herbs. But we never found the dunes–only rolling mounds of sand over soil. We began the hike with an interpretive trail guide corresponding to 7 markers, but mosquitoes quickly put an end to that. We found ourselves marching through the forest just to complete the loop. The roundtrip walk to the trailhead proved to be longer than the entire trail.

With a faint drizzle falling, we planned a 35-mile drive to Terrace Bay, following TransCanada Highway 17 west around the top of Lake Superior, but the truck refused to start. Earlier in the week, I was stuck in a parking lot under similar circumstances, but Leah located a Samaritan willing to give me a battery boost. Today, however, was a different mater. After shlepping a spare battery around America for tens of thousands of miles, I finally got a chance to use it.

The battery installation set us back half an hour. And then the sky opened up the moment I dropped the hood and climbed inside the cab. It was an auspicious moment in my life!

We finally arrived at Terrace Bay (pop. 1100) and descended an elaborate boardwalk to a high viewing platform that distanced us from Aquasabon Fall’s 100-ft. drop,

Aquasabon Falls

and the granite gorge that carries the spill water to Lake Superior.

Aquasabon Falls and Gorge

Back at the boardwalk entrance, I stood alongside a millennial male. We were studying an oversized graphic together about the geological properties and commercial significance of the Falls.

Falls and Gorge graphic

My neighbor had a cat perched on his shoulder wearing a harness with a leash. Suddenly, a light rain began to fall, spooking the cat. It leapt to the ground, surprising the host. He had control for a moment, but it squirmed out of his arms, and wriggled free of its harness. He dove for the hind legs, but the cat was too fast. It bolted 50 yards to the trees, and disappeared in the brush with his girlfriend chasing after it and screaming its name. We briefly watched in amusement, wondering if the cat would reconnect with its owners, but we had our doubts.

While in town, we filled the truck with $130 Canadian of gas, and searched for a lunch spot, but ended up at a Chinese Canadian restaurant in a strip mall just to use the internet. I had fried chicken balls (no joke), and Leah ordered dry-rubbed spare ribs. The food was as disappointing as a dead car battery and tasteless as a lost cat in the woods.

spare ribs

A stubby white lighthouse planted in front of the strip mall parking lot offered a view of Lake Superior. To Leah’s amazement, I passed on a picture of the tower and a view from the bridge. 

The ride back to Neys was rainswept and uninteresting except for a cow moose that galloped across TransCanada Highway 17, followed closely by two calves. They hurdled the guard rail and instantly disappeared into the forest. Maybe they’ll discover the cat.

 

Agawa Rock Pictographs

The trail was advertised as 0.5 km.

“It’s probably very steep,” Leah figures.

“How hard can it be?” I wonder, still a skeptic.

“It says so in the brochure,” she states. “I quote, ‘Caution is advised when venturing onto this rock ledge due to its slope and the unpredictable nature of Lake Superior and its wave action.'”

“Sounds like fun. We should see it,” I suggest. “This is ancient historical shit!”

“It sounds a lot like the petroglyphs that we saw in Nevada,” she offers.

“You mean the Atlatl Rock in Valley of Fire State Park,” I acknowledge.

“Exactly!” she states.

“But this one’s on the water, and not the desert,” I tease.

“I know that, smart ass, and it’s also harder to get to, so you need to be careful!” Leah lectures.

“Like I said, how hard can it be?” I reiterate.

We park the truck only minutes from our campsite at Agawa Bay, and enter the trailhead where we are met with a screaming red sign:

warning (2)

“Like I said…” drops Leah.

I deflect the dig. “Check it out.” I direct Leah’s attention to a different sign to our right–a red diamond hammered to a tree with a white arrow and 400 km on it.

“That’s where the trail begins. And according to that sign, we’ve already walked 20% of the trail!”

It’s true the trail is rugged and a scramble. The descent runs through a narrow chasm, over sharp boulders and bulging roots. But it’s only treacherous if wearing flip flops, which a student rangerette at the visitor’s center admits can be a problem with some hikers.

Halfway to our destination, a gash in the cliff exposes a 10 ft granite chunk mysteriously wedged between darkness and daylight.

split rock (2)

In 15 minutes we arrive at a clearing of flat rock where the sky opens up to the water. A colorful cliff 15 stories high looms above us, grabbing my attention.

Painted Rock

Leah is content holding onto a pipe rail that separates the adventurous from the cautious.

“Are you coming?” I ask.

“Down there? Not a chance!” Leah answers instinctively.

A short drop onto a wet ledge of granite sloping into Lake Superior takes added time, but planting my feet with measured steps is the best method for staying safe.

on a ledge
courtesy of Leah

Knotted ropes threaded through embedded pipes are there to assist the daredevils who spill into 50° F water.

from Picturegraph ledge

Once I get my footing, I can sidle across the ledge for a better look at the cliff face.

painted rockface

Venturing further out on the ledge, I meet Mishipeshu, the Great Lynx, who was empowered by the ancient Ojibways to control Lake Superior.

Mishibizhiw Great Lynx, who controlled Lake Superior

There are dozens of sacred drawings set in stone, dating back to the 17th century, but most are faded and nearly unrecognizable from eons of sun, water, ice and wind. Their message remains unknown, but experts reason that the pictographs depict historical events, and could signify manitous from shamanistic ceremonies.

I carefully manuever onto terra firma,

Agawa Rock Lake Superior (3)

and we hike back to the parking lot.

“That was amazing, down there,” I exclaim.

“It was alright,” notes Leah.

“But you never got to see the pictographs,” I mention.

“That’s OK. You did all the hard work for me. I’ll just have a look at your photographs,” she laughs.

 

 

 

Great Lakes Hyperbole

Of course, the Great Lakes are great; they constitute the world’s largest above-ground freshwater system in the world, containing about 18 percent of the world’s supply.

However, beyond its scale (larger than all the Eastern seaboard states combined), what about all the other awesome attractions that border its shorelines? Are they equally as great, or big, or best, or exclusive?

Let’s take a look:

Given the many possibilities for food around the Great Lakes, the area’s largest hamburger rests atop Burger King in Niagara Falls, ON.

Burger King

And the largest hotdog can be found in Mackinaw City at Wienerlicious.

Wienerlicious (2)

Both can be purchased with the world’s largest nickel…

biggest nickel

the brainchild of Dr. Ted Szilva,

Dr. Rred Szilva (2)

and on display at Sudbury’s Dynamic Earth.

Dynamic Earth

Only one mile away, Inco’s superstack–the tallest chimney in the western hemisphere–rises 1250 feet atop Vale Inco’s Copper Cliff processing facility–the largest nickel smelting operation in the world.

INCO Superstack

Nowhere as tall, Castle Rock (commonly referred to as Pontiac’s Lookout) is a natural 200-foot limestone sea chimney…

Castle Rock

overlooking Lake Huron and Interstate 75,

I-75

and considered the oldest lookout in St. Ignace, Michigan…until the Mackinac Bridge was built in 1957.

Mackinaw Suspension Bridge

Spanning the Straits of Mackinac, and connecting the Upper and Lower Peninsulas of Michigan, the Mackinac Bridge is hailed as the longest suspension bridge in the western hemisphere.

Building the bridge

Although less of an engineering feat, the upside-down house, built in Niagara Falls, measures up to 1200 square feet of topsy-turvy, making it Canada’s most unusual landmark.

upside down house

Nearby, at Niagara on the Lake, locals can tee up at Niagara Golf Club, the oldest existing golf course (albeit, nine holes) in North America.

Niagara Golf

In Midland, Ontario, a grain elevator looms over a Georgian Bay harbor, featuring North America’s largest historic outdoor mural created by Fred Lenz.

Midland mural

mural history

History also abounds at Colonial Michilimackinac–

Fort Michilimackinac

a reconstructed 18th century frontier fortress originally garrisoned by the French during 1715, and later controlled by the British.

3 British Stooges

After 60 years of excavation, valuable relics from fort living continue to be unearthed, making it the longest ongoing archeological dig in North America.

digger

One of the many buildings discovered and recreated inside the fort belonged to Ezekiel Solomon, a fur trader who has been celebrated as Michigan’s first Jewish settler.

Solomon House

Solomon plaque (2)

And then there’s Niagara Falls, a natural wonder that needs little hyperbole.

While not the highest, or the widest falls, its combined falls (Horseshoe Falls, American Falls, and Bridal Veil Falls) qualify Niagara Falls as the most powerful, forming the highest flow rate of any waterfall in North America.

Niagara Falls horseshoe

While this “Great” list may not represent the best of all gilded attractions in the Great Lakes area to date, it’s the only list I’m likely to compile

…until the next one.

Cooperstown, NY

For a richer experience, play the sound file while reviewing this post about America’s past-time:


I’ve wanted to attend the National Baseball Hall of Fame for as long as I’ve been a baseball fan,

entrance_full

which for me culminated in 1960, when my hometown team, the improbable Pittsburgh Pirates contended for their first National League pennant in 33 years, and went on to play in the World Series against the much-favored New York Yankees.

Pirates on deck circle (2)

The series was notable for a number of reasons. The Yankees, who had won 10 pennants in the past 12 years, outscored the Pirates 55–27, outhit them 91–60, outbatted them .338 to .256, hit 10 home runs to Pittsburgh’s four (three of which came in Game 7), and were twice shutout in complete games by Whitey Ford. And they lost.

The series was decided in the seventh game with a dramatic walk-off home run by Bill Mazeroski–a feat that never happened before in baseball’s history, and today, ranks eighth on Sports Illustrated list of the 100 Greatest Moments in Sports History.

Beyond that, I couldn’t imagine there being a boy playing Little League baseball who didn’t step up to the plate pretending to be “Maz” and winning it all with one swing of the bat.

Baseball was more than a national past-time to me; it was part of my life–whether it was practicing, playing the game, or collecting and trading baseball cards with friends…

cards

although I was never a serious collector who was fortunate enough to possess a part of the Holy Trinity.

 

The Baseball Hall of Fame is synonymous with Cooperstown. Every year, during the mid-season break, the induction ceremony celebrates the best players who have ever taken the field,

HOF Members

to play a game that began in Hoboken, NJ on June 19, 1846 at Elysian Fields.

Elysian Fields, Hoboken

The village of Cooperstown is a buccolic hamlet on the southern tip of Otsego Lake in upstate New York.

Lake Otsego

The town, once known as the birthplace of famed author, James Fenimore Cooper,

James Fenimore Cooper

is now a town devoted to sports memorabilia on every street corner,

Yastzremski Sports

Mickey and Joe

Cooperstown Bats

7th Inning stretch

and catering to fans looking to own a small piece of folk history.

baseballs for sale

There’s also a legendary ballpark that each year hosts hundreds of Little League games,

Doubleday Field (2)

and the Hall of Fame Classic, featuring the best of the game.

Doubleday Field

Baseball is about the pioneers,

Gallery entrance

the ballfields,

Ebbets Field

the fans,

super fans

the mascots,

 

and the records…

Lou Gehrig

Hank Aaron

But mostly, it’s about the players.

Babe and Ted

Satchel Paige

Cooperstown is a shrine for all my boyhood heroes…

 

 

 

and my fond memories of baseball–at the ballpark, where I felt lucky to attend an occasional game at Forbes Field with my dad; on the transistor radio, pretending to sleep, but listening in the dark with an earpiece to Bob Prince calling the game; and in newspapers, where I eagerly checked the box score the following day.

The National Baseball Hall of Fame is a hit with 250,000 fans visiting every year, and a museum worth catching if stricken with baseball fever.

catching behind home plate

District Six

District Six was known as the soul of Cape Town, and home to nearly 10% of Cape Town’s population. It was a restless melting pot of freed slaves, persecuted Malays, and opportunistic Asians stewing as community artisans, musicians, merchants, immigrants, and laborers in a broth of grit, sweat, determination and talent. The vitality of the district inspired a body of poetry, prose, music and theater infused with swagger. 

Hanover Street

However, during the 1960’s, a generation of District Six residents lived in fear because of the color of their skin. The Afrikaner-centric government looked to apartheid as a means to squash opposition among the rank and file majority, prompting an official decree to rezone the district as a “whites-only” area, displacing more than 93% of the 60,000 residents.

The Segregated City

Government officials offered several reasons in defense of their policy. They regarded the district as a slum; it was crime-ridden and dangerous–overwhelmed by immoral activities like gambling, drinking, and prostitution. They claimed interracial interaction inside District 6 bred conflict, necessitating the separation of the races.

Pass Laws

By 1982, the government was relocating the “colored.” They were sent to dusty Cape Flat townships with insufficient infrastructure, while 25 km away, their old homes and businesses were bulldozed, leaving only the houses of worship behind. 

luggage

Despite government claims, most residents believed that the government sought the land because of its proximity to the city center, Table Mountain, and the harbor.

Table Mountain

By 1991, apartheid was repealed, and on December 10, 1994 the District Six Museum was launched in a historic Methodist Church building at 25A Buitenkant Street.

museum entrance

The museum serves as a remembrance to the events of the apartheid era as well as the culture and history of the area before the removals.

District 6 Museum

The ground floor is covered by a large street map of District Six, with handwritten notes from former residents indicating where their homes once stood.

street and feet (2).jpg

Other features of the museum include street signs from the old district,

street signs

displays of the histories and lives of District Six families,

Beauty Parlor vignette

and historical explanations of the life of the District and its destruction.

residence towers

In addition to its function as a museum, it also serves as a memorial to a decimated community, and a meeting place and community center for the residents of Cape Town who identify with its history.

Lydia in the Wind

Our tour of Cape Town’s darker side continued with a trip to Langa, Cape Town’s oldest township in Western Cape with a population of over 50,000.

Langa!

Originally conceived in the 1920’s as a company residence for shipyard workers from surrounding villages, the existing barracks are home to multiple families occupying a two-room unit.

township barracks

Our tour began optimistically with a walk through the Cultural Centre on the edge of the township that has partnered with local artists to rehabilitate the neighborhood…

studio

and reinforce arts education as a means of promoting self-esteem and securing a successful career path for talented residents through ceramics,

pottery studio

paper maché,

paper and paint

mosaics,

mosaic mural

and painting.

painting display

We continued our visit with a guided street walk through the neighborhoods…

Sozito Hair Salon and cabins

Over and over, we asked ourselves, “How can people live this way?”

Raba Cash Store

Realizing that we were a half-hour away from our luxury hotel made us uncomfortable and acutely aware of the abject poverty and abysmal living conditions surrounding us.

laundry

Unemployment stands at 40%,

Killing Time

and sanitation is an afterthought.

sheep heads

After negotiating with the house matriarch, our guide ushered us into a dank hovel fit for a family of four families. Several small children were playing on the floor, while adults went about their business of doing laundry,

Hut interior

preparing dinner,

cooking

or relaxing in front of a pirated broadcast on a vintage TV.

TV time

It was an awkward moment that may have been intended to shock us or educate us; I’m not sure which. But the people inside were nonplussed by our appearance, as if our intrusion was a routine occurrence.

If only we had been forewarned of this encounter, it would have given us an opportunity to gift them some wholesome food and clean water.

Water Carriers1

The citizens of Langa and the 2.5 million living in other townships on the edge of Cape Town struggle daily. Even now, as before, they rely on each other to survive, while the government offers little more than lip service in exchange for votes.

Vote ANC

Elephants of the Okavango Delta

The Republic of Botswana alarmed conservation watchdogs and environmentalists around the world when the government announced the end of a five-year prohibition on elephant trophy hunting.
grazing
The ban was implemented in 2014 under then-President Ian Khama, an ardent conservationist, whose goal was to preserve the elephant population to increase Botswana’s eco-tourism industry, while conserving the species.
KT shows us elephants
The Great Elephant Census of 2016 concluded that Africa now has 352,271 savanna elephants –130,000 of which roam freely through Botswana. Of the 12 African nations surveyed, the elephant population dropped by at least 30 percent between 2007 and 2014, with approximately 8% of the herds now being lost every year to poaching. That’s equivalent to 27,000 elephants being slaughtered for ivory and other body parts.
tusks
Khama implemented a ban on elephant hunting, and enacted an unwritten shoot-to-kill, anti-poaching policy, giving rangers and soldiers the right to shoot first, and ask questions later. As a result, during his term as president from 2008 to 2018, the elephant population stabilized.
matriarch and offspring
But elephants are nomadic, and know no borders. They routinely migrate between Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe, making it difficult to consider them residents from one specific country.
elephant by balloon
The 2-year drought has expanded the elephants range considerably, driving them further south in search of fresh grass and water, while also bringing them closer to humans already occupying the territory.
hitch hiker
Consequently, human-elephant encounters have increased significantly, causing villagers to complain about elephants marauding through their fields, and destroying a season’s worth of crops in one night.
high grass
Lawmakers and The Ministry of Environment, Natural Resource Conservation and Tourism acknowledged that local community reaction to wildlife conservation was shifting away from the ban, with farmer’s acting more concerned about their loss of income.
elephants and croc
Current president, Mokgweetsi Masisi immediately repealed the shoot-to-kill policy, and disarmed the rangers of their military-grade weapons. He tasked a coalition of national and local stakeholders to review the ban, and the committee returned in February with a recommendation to lift the ban.
mud bath
Outrage against Botswana’s decision has been swift and universal. Conservationists have expressed regret, concerned that targeting elephants will open the door for increased trading of illegal ivory.
2 month old elephant
Additionally, experts say the move would be counterproductive, as hunting elephants will make them fearful of humans and provoke them, increasing the conflict with local communities.
sunset (3)
Ex-president Khama says that lifting the ban is both unwise and ineffectual. “Resorting to killing is a blood policy that should not be supported. This will not have an impact on human animal incidents. It is a political move.”
As legal controversy rages between humane versus economic interests, African elephants will continue to fight for their own survival, provided they still have a leg to stand on.
6 legs

Watch a primer on the elephant problem for added information…

A Walk Along the Cape Town Waterfront

Much of Cape Town radiates with modern appeal, brandishing its abundance of fashionable and trendy shops, galleries, cafes, restaurants, and hotels throughout the city. However, the crossroads where residents and tourists travel to find it all is Cape Town’s waterfront.

Leah and I took a walk through the waterfront district to see for ourselves, and found that one day was not enough to cover it all.

The heartbeat of the waterfront is the Victoria and Albert Wharf, where the city meets the sea.

V&A Waterfront

Grounded by a two-story mall, the Victoria Wharf Shopping Centre bustles with 450 retail stores, and over 80 restaurants and eateries.

V & A Wharf

Beyond a swinging bridge and a capsule of specialty malls stands the Clock Tower, where a ferry (calm seas and weather permittting) awaits to shuttle intrepid visitors to Robben Island…

Mandela Gateway

the one-time prison of Nelson Mandela from 1964 to 1982, but now a museum and World Heritage site. Unfortunately, high swells prevented us from visiting.

His importance to the city and country cannot be underestimated, as his name and face is omnipresent throughout the region.

The Four

Visible from all points of the city, and looming over the wharf is Table Mountain,

Table Mountain

accessible by cable car, with commanding views of the city below. Unfortunately, Leah and I never made it to the top because of gusting winds at the time.

Continuing south, we mounted a set of stairs…

Steps to Silo

directing us to the Silo District, where a 1920s grain silo…

Silos

has been repurposed into the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art,

The Silo and Zeotrope

having opened on September 2017, and boasting the world’s largest collection of African art.

The building also houses the Silo Hotel, occupying the top six floors within the one-time grain elevator. Daily rates during low season range from $900 for a luxury room to $5000 for a 1-Bedroom Penthouse. Leah and I thought we’d have a look around.

The elevator carried us to reception on the sixth floor, where we spoke to an attendant who eagerly escorted us to the eleventh floor open-air restaurant, lounge and pool.

Silo pool

Having missed out on a Table Mountain overlook because of weather, our surrounding views of the stadium,

Stadium (2)

the wharf,

Looking out to Robbens Island

the ship terminal,

Cruise Terminal

and the courtyard below were spectacular, and made up for our disappointment.

Silo Courtyard

Once back on earth, we headed past the shipyards…

Shipyard

and along the canal…

Canal

to Battery Park, a greenspace where families gather to skate and picnic.

Battery Park1 (2)

After reaching City Hall in the distance, we doubled back to the waterfront, eager to continue the next part of our journey in search of wild animals.

Giraffe crane

Much more to follow…

Searching for Closure, Part 3

The Neue Synagogue of Stalerstrasse was consecrated in 1913 from Edmund Körner’s designs, and was Essen’s cultural and social epicenter for the 4500 Jews around town. With its four striking copper cupolas,

Neue Synagogue (2)

it was considered one of Europe’s largest and architecturally significant synagogues of all time.

women's gallery interior

Twenty-five years later, the synagogue burned at the hands of Nazis on the eve of Kristallnacht, while onlookers could only watch in horror and dismay.

Essen Synagogue (2)
Neue Synagogue burning, Photo Archive Ruhr Museum (photographer unknown)

Fire engines stood guard as a precaution in case adjacent buildings should accidentally catch fire while the synagogue continued to burn.

Although the synagogue’s interior was plundered, vandalized and badly scarred by fire,

burned interior
and intense Allied bombing scored direct hits on the Krupp artillery and munitions factory nearby,

Krupp plant bombed (2)
Repairing Tracks at Krupps Plant, Essen, Germany, 1945. Photographer Margaret Bourke-White.

the exterior of the synagogue miraculously survived against a backdrop of rubble.

after the bombing (2)

My mother’s family worshipped at the Neue Synagogue from the time her parents settled in Essen in 1919. One of her earliest memories was sitting in the chapel listening to her father chant the Sabbath prayers from the bimah.

By 1988, the synagogue had been restored to its original splendor, and to the world, represented a shining memorial of the German resistance.

Torah Ark (2)

In August, 1999, despite my mother’s solemn vow to never return to Germany, her views were softened by Essen City Council’s olive branch of restitution, and she accepted their invitation to once again visit the synagogue she loved, and reflect on her upbringing.
Twenty years later, Essen City Council officially decreed the Alte Synagogue as a “House of Jewish Culture.”
permanent exhibit.pngFollowing my visit to Bergen-Belsen, I met with Martina Strehlen, the Deputy Head of Research Collections of the Old Synagogue to experience this cultural landmark, the origin of my mother’s Jewish roots, and to review specific archival materials. Martina clearly recalled my mother’s visit 20 years ago, and eagerly shared copies of artifacts she had donated to the research center’s collection.

Grandma Rose
Rose Straws, my grandmother
Mnil admission to Westerbork
Proof of Registration for Menil Strawzinski

Afterwards, I stood in the warm sun for a time and marveled at the significance of the Old Synagogue sharing a courtyard with the Church of Peace.

jewish-and-catholic.jpg

I was nearing the end of my journey, but there was one last deed to fulfill. Before returning my rental car to Amsterdam, I would first stop at the Jewish Cemetery of Diemen, located just outside Amsterdam’s city limits, and search for my grandfather’s grave.

Records indicate that Mnil Strawczynski was cremated on September 5, 1943, and his remains were transferred to Field U–a remote and overgrown plot of closely stacked headstones memorializing the 400 urns from Westerbork Transit Camp during Nazi occupation.

Field U

Walking the cemetary alone against a gray souless sky, I felt a odd closeness to someone I had never met, but had come to know through scattered remnants of research.

cemetary stones

But I was no closer to the closure I was seeking.

cracked and falling

With each stone unturned, a mountain of questions have been unearthed,

damp grass and stones

yet the answers are as obscure as the inscriptions on these markers.

field of stones

Searching for Closure, Part 2

I wanted more time in Amsterdam, but time wouldn’t allow it. I still had to reckon with Germany, and Bergen-Belsen was my first test. Google Maps predicted a 4.5 hour drive time, but then again, Google never consulted me about driving on the Autobahn.
I rented a SEAT Leon–a car I knew nothing about–but was assured by the agent that, “SEAT Leon is a useful car to get from point A to point B.”
“Never heard of it before. What kind of car is it…compared to more popular carmakers?” I asked.
“Think of it as a sportier Spanish version of a VW Golf,” he informed.
OK, I thought. That ought to do, and it seemed so appropriate considering how close the concentration camp is to Wolfsburg, home of the VW factory and largest automobile plant in the world.
For a third of the way, I had to watch my speed, before crossing the country border into Germany. But once A1 turned into A 30, I was off to the races.

Ordinarily, 130 kph (81 mph) is the top-posted speed limit on highways, but for many high performance vehicles, that’s akin to standing still. When clear of frequent road repairs, much of the Autobahn carries three lanes of traffic: trucks and turtles in the right lane; quasi-regulation speed in the middle lane; and Mach 1, bat-outta-hell speed in the left lane.
I waited patiently until I reached De Poppe, where I overtook a BMW 3, and throttled the accelerator as I pushed the transmission into top gear. This was life in the fast lane. When the speedometer crossed 170, I set my sights on the next middle-lane creeper, a Fiat 500. My cruising speed topped 190 and flattened.

The Fiat was coming up fast on my right. I checked my mirrors, and suddenly discovered the front end of a Mercedes-AMG GT filling my rearview and flashing its headlights. Seriously?! Within seconds of passing the Fiat?!
I stood my ground–I was committed to passing the Fiat–it was my right! Of course, my tailgater thought the same.
The roadster was so close, I could have been towing him. And now its syncopated horn was blaring. In my fantasy, it probably resembled a Grand Prix pas de deux, but in reality, it was German intimidation.
I sped past the Fiat and quickly crossed back to the middle. The Mercedes effortlessly blew by me doing no less than 240, and in a blink of an eye, my nemesis was beyond my driving horizon. Thereafter, I occasionally found my way back to the rocket lane, but I was content to run, where others were meant to fly.
Nevertheless, I managed to shave a half-hour off my run time as I took my exit. The scenery turned verdant green as I shot down the lonely country lane. Trees were filling in, crops were sprouting, and accents of color from wild flowers popped against a cloudless sky.
I was racing to Bergen-Belsen–not knowing what to expect–but once I sensed the immediacy of my arrival, I purposely down-shifted my anxiety to regain control of my emotions. I sat in the parking lot for a minute with the engine idling, thinking about the history of this place and its connection to my family, and the untold suffering and misery caused to so many others, that I wept. It wasn’t a long cry, but long enough to strengthen my resolve.
I entered the facility, where I met Simone, who sat behind the desk of the documentation center…
Simone at the entrance
and I restated my purpose. She took my grandmother’s name and cross-checked it against the memorial registry. It’s estimated that more than 50,000 people died of starvation, disease, brutality and medical sadism while interned at Bergen-Belsen. When British Allies liberated the camp on April, 15, 1945, they discovered over 60,000 prisoners, most of them sick or dying.
“You are very fortunate. Just before the Liberation, the Nazis destroyed most of their records to hide their crimes. We have records for only half the prisoners held here, but lucky for you, your grandmother’s name is on the list,” she said with excitement.
And then she presented me with twin volumes…
Books of Remembrance
and flagged the most significant page in Volume Two, which caused my heart to race.
list of names (2).jpg
Simone offered a map of the museum, and I got started on my quest.

museum map

My time was limited and I was feeling overwhelmed by the site of so many artifacts–laid out like a trail of evidence–to narrate a place in time when human beings behaved at their worst.

Standing there, I was seeing the truth stripped bare, and this sensation was getting in my way of collecting clues of my family.
exhibit hall
Square window boxes have been dropped into the cement floor, representing the found objects that archealogists have unearthed…


after the camp was incinerated by the Brits to control the spread of typhus.
camp_model
Walls of displays detail the story of the horrors within…
mission.jpg
Because of my correspondence with Bernd Horstmann, curator of the museum’s Register of Names, I learned that Grandma Rose arrived at Bergen-Belsen from Westerbork on January 12, 1944 with 1,024 other Jews,
When a transport arrives
and was detained at the Star Camp, a subsection of the Exchange Camp…
worden.jpg
crematorium
Because Grandma Rose had value to the Nazis as a seamstress, she was most likely deployed to the SS-owned Weaving Works,
letter and records (2)
letter and records (3)
which forced women to produce items from scrap materials,
weaving-works.jpg
in addition to repairing inmate uniforms.
prisoner uniform
Although living conditions at the Star Camp were considered better than other blocks within Bergen-Belsen…
conditions
the indignity and torture was more than enough to drive many of the prisoners mad.
indignity
Nonetheless, a code of conduct ruled inside the huts, in sharp contrast to the chaos and barbarism that reigned on the outside. Having been relegated to Block 20, Grandma Rose was beholden to Jewish Elder, Joseph Weiss.
code of conduct
In time, as surrounding concentration camps closed, Bergen-Belsen saw a dramatic increase in inmates. Originally intended as a Soviet POW camp for 20,000 prisoners, the camp population swelled beyond imagination and sustainability.
prisoner numbers (3)
By April, 1945, the Third Reich learned that the Allies had broken German defenses from the west and the south as the Soviets were advancing from the east.
in-early-april-1945.jpg
On April 7, 1945, Grandma Rose was among the first to be loaded onto a cattle car initially bound for Thereisenstadt,
Trains to Westerbork (2)
but destined for the gas chambers.
map of death trains route
Of course, none of the transportees knew where they were going or what to expect on the other side of their living hell, except continuing sickness and certain death.
the ride to Farsleben
After six days of unimaginable terror on the rails, Grandma Rose’s train was liberated near the German village of Farsleben on April 15, 1945 by American soldiers from the 743rd Tank Battalion of the 30th Infantry Division.

liberation mother and child (2)
Courtesy of the Gross family

Maj. Frank Towers, who also took part in the liberation, organized the transfer of Grandma Rose and the other 2,500 freed prisoners to a nearby town, Hillersleben, where they received medical treatment from Allied troops. Grandma Rose weighed 90 pounds when she admitted to the field hospital.
I felt I had reached my capacity for absorbing the inhumanity justified by the Nazis in their quest for the “Final Solution”. I didn’t know if I could process any more of it, but there was one last exhibit inside the Film Tower that was impossible to ignore, no matter how difficult to endure.
Eventually, the museum was cleared at 5pm. As many as 10 other patrons filed through the exit and into their cars, leaving me with another couple to roam the cemetery grounds on a beautiful Spring afternoon.
1940 Bis 1945.jpg
There are no tombstones on the grounds, but there are government memorials…
oblisque.jpg
and government tributes…
Herzog plaque
and personal markers.
personal tributes.jpg
scattered among a cluster of memorial mounds…
Memorial.jpg
where the unknown remains of tens of thousands of victims share a mass grave beneath the berm.

(please be advised of extremely graphic content)

I found solace inside the House of Silence, an outlying metal and glass edifice on the edge of camp, in the midst of a grove of birch trees…
Acute angle blue
where a soaring meditation room offers space for personal reflection,
House of Silence interior
and an altar for hundreds of tokens of healing and prayer.
shrine
Bergen-Belsen is a sad place that offers little redemption beyond the nagging reminder that people have the capacity for immeasurable cruelty toward each other–as if it’s in our DNA–and this is our scar for future reference.Surely, a solemn oath from each of us to “never forget,” brings us one step closer to “never again.”
But this memorial also challenges us to check our speed. We need to slow down and be mindful of the world around us in order to listen closely for the pulse of hatred that still beats among us, lest we drive down this familiar road again, ignoring the vital signs of tolerance, freedom, and understanding.
A “Search for Closure” concludes with Part 3.

Searching for Closure, Part 1

A recent two-week trip abroad was much more than a European romp through a handful of city centers. My mission was ambitious: to gather relevant data on my mother’s ancestry that has thus far proved elusive, and reconnect with family across the Atlantic whom I haven’t seen in nearly 48 years.

My itinerary took me through the highlands of Scotland, to the canals of Holland, to the Rhineland of Germany,

travel route

with travel hubs in Edinburgh,

Sir Walter Scott Monument1 (2)

Amsterdam,

bikes2

and Essen,

Alte shul plaza (2)

before taking a breath, and finishing strong as a tourist in Brussels,

Mont des Arts1

and Paris.

Luxemburg Gardens

Each stop was consequential in my quest to uncover vital research of my mother’s epic escape from Nazi Germany, and the endless road taken to reunite her broken family.

This was not an easy trip, but I could sense that during the planning stage. Yet, preparing myself for the inevitable and predictable emotional turmoil was balanced by the prospect of discovery–knowing that every step was taking me closer to connecting the dots.

Starting in the UK, I then worked my way back in time to The Netherlands, and eventually Germany–where it all began–but it was Amsterdam that proved most pivotal in my discovery and the epicenter of my travels, because it was Amsterdam that first offered safe harbor and hope for two young sisters, who until then, only had each other.

Centraal1

It was in Amsterdam that my long-distance cousin Jude and I began to fill in the missing pieces.

Jude and the Tree of Life

It so happened that a landmark exhibit of rare photographs at Amsterdam’s National Holocaust Museum coincided with our visit, and immediately became a must-see.

Exhibit cover

A large number of photos were taken by professional photographers, mostly commissioned by German authorities for use as propaganda. In addition, there were also countless amateurs who photographed the persecution and deportation of the Jews. The NIOD (Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies) manages by far the largest photo collection on this theme and conducted extensive research into the visual history of the persecution of the Jews in the Netherlands. Countless archives at home and abroad were consulted; this has led to the discovery of many still unknown photos.
The exhibition shows a large and representative overview of the photographic recording of the persecution of the Jews. The images show in a penetrating and confronting way, the consequences of the anti-Jewish measures in the occupied Netherlands. They bear witness to the merciless behavior of the German occupiers, the cooperation of the Dutch in the deportations, but also the help to people in hiding and to the daily Jewish life during the occupation. In addition, attention is paid to the post-war reception of the few survivors from the camps and those who returned from hiding.

First greeted with a timeline of events,

timeline

we proceeded through an open-air corridor and into a subdued chamber, where mostly elderly patrons followed a photographic progression of Holland’s involvement in the war, and its impact on the Jewish population:

exhibit intro

Experiencing the exhibit was numbing to my core, but still my senses were on high alert. What were my chances, I wondered, that of the 140,000 remaining Jews in Holland from 1940-1945, I might find a photograph of my grandmother stitching an article of clothing…

sewing room

for the Jewish Council,

Jewish Council

to match up with one of the few yarns she used to tell me when I was so much younger and unappreciative of her travails?

Perhaps, she could be the proper woman in the gray coat with the straight back walking the lane between barracks in Westerbork.

Life in Westerbork

Or might I recognize her in a crowd of 2,500 faces that was awaiting one of three “death trains” to Theresienstadt after the Nazi command realized that the Allies were only days away from liberating Bergen-Belson on April 15, 1945.

Trains to Westerbork (2)

At times, I used my camera as a shield to protect me from the full impact of the horror behind the photographs, thinking that if I could position myself as someone who is solely documenting the documents, than I could better insulate myself from the madness that she and so many others must have experienced.

An interactive Remembrance Wall occupied a room by the Museum foyer, encouraging patrons to search its ever-evolving database for the names and dates of Jewish victims who perished in Holland.

As a tribute to my unknown maternal grandfather Mnil…

Mnil

I entered his name into the query window. He never survived Westerbork, and I had a quiet moment of reflection and gratitude for his courage to save his family before himself.

A two-hour drive to Kamp Westerbork with Jude did nothing to assuage my feelings of emptiness and sadness, but the site was ironically enlightening and beautifully serene.

Once at the memorial museum, we were greeted by a train of suitcases, representing the cycle of detainees that the Dutch pushed through Westerbork over the years,

suitcase-symbolism.jpg

with an emphasis on the plight of 102,000 Jews who sacrified their lives, all for the sake of a twisted manifesto of hatred.

mural

Jude and I met Guido, the senior conservator of the museum at the museum cafe,

Westerbork collage

where he eagerly shared news and theories of our grandfather’s demise and our grandmother’s salvation through a collection of registration documents.

Two miles away, the hallowed grounds of the memorial can be reached on foot or by bus. Mostly empty space and green fields for an array of radio telescopes,

radio telescopes

it nevertheless showcases a collection of iconic relics from the war that survived the Dutch government’s demolition of the camp in the 1960s.

There is a glass enclosure protecting the Commandant’s quarters;

Westerbork under Glass

an original boxcar that stands as a testament to the 84 trains that transported Jews to Auschwitz and Sobibor,

Train car

where nearly all of the 94,643 persons deported were killed on arrival;

boarding the train.jpg

a monument to the 102,000 Jews of The Netherlands who passed through Westerbork…

The 102,000 Rocks

and lost their lives;

Bricks.jpg

the remnants of a barrack;

barrack-then and now.jpg

broken barracks

and a guard tower standing beside a metaphoric railbed.

guard tower.jpg

I drifted from display to display, as if being involuntarily directed like a Ouija board peg–believing that I was somehow being programmed to walk in the footsteps of my grandparents.

Upon return to Amsterdam, Jude and I strolled through the Jewish District, walking past the Portuguese Synagogue, an imposing Baroque structure completed in 1675, where most certainly, our family would have prayed, but sadly, never as a family;

Portuguese Synagogue

and along Weesperstraat, past the Monument of Jewish Gratitude,

Monument of Gratitude

where a controversial limestone edifice will soon be replaced by Daniel Libeskind’s Shoah Memorial.

From there, we strolled in search of the Burgerweeshius,

Amsterdam Museum

once the landmark orphanage that sheltered our moms after they were transported from Soesterberg…

De-Burgerweeshuiskinderen-voor-mei-1940.-Foto-NIOD (2)
Bertie stands in the back row in front of the tree; Eva sits in the second row, third from the right

and now home to the Amsterdam Museum.

Burgerwiishaus

For one moment, I thought I could hear the faint and familiar sound of children playing in the courtyard–playing tag around the tree, and playing soccer across the herringbone pavers.

Amsterdam had much to offer. Walking through the city, I felt an eerie sense of belonging–not because of the dissonance of grief–past or present–but the resonance of a shared understanding brought about by reconnecting with my cousin, Jude and the revelation that Amsterdam’s secrets have become an open book of acknowledgement and remembrance.

The journey continues with Part 2…

Window Dressing

Peering into shop windows along the streets and canals of Amsterdam…

canal scene

…presents many an oddity that will surely arouse the senses. Although, considering Amsterdam’s predilection and distinction for legal marijuana and prostitution, it would seem unlikely that there could be any room for other surprises.

Yet oddly enough, despite the merchandising overload of everything cannabis,

containers

pot menu

and the city’s penchant for 24-hr flesh peddling,

red light secrets

there is more to Amsterdam than just kink and circumstance.

There are also plenty of museums,

Amsterdam Museum.jpg

and enough al fresco cafés and frites stores to support a cultural and gastronomical battalion.

fast food

Amsterdam is a place for eyes behind your head, because two eyes in front is not enough to sidestep all the oncoming cyclists coming from every direction,

bikers and reefer.jpg

bikes at nite

but also to catch all the head-turning outrageousness of an unrepentant town that still embraces Easter.

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Amsterdam is a place to relax. Heck, half the population is already stoned, and the pungent waft of weed is a strong reminder to kick back and enjoy the scenery.

canal sitters (2)

park canal.jpg

Amsterdam is a tolerant town, where all kinds of people gather and co-exist without judgement or little reservation. Citizens are proud and expressive, at times aggressive, but mostly helpful–although they smoke entirely too much, and regard the street as their personal ashtray.

Queers

As a laissez-faire society by practice and design, it appears to work. Quite simply, Amsterdam is a libertarian’s delight!

And that leaves plenty of room for rubber duckies and vaginas, and everything between.

think pink

Brussels Lore

Brussels loves its folklore. And its citizens are unabashed about it. They show it off around town, and celebrate it with a flourish.

Belgians are world renown chocolatiers, and proud of their invention. Case in point–Jean Neuhaus…

Jean Neuhaus (2)

…a one-time chemist who realized that a chocolate coating around a pill helps the medicine go down. His pharmacy in Galerie de la Reine…

Galerie de La Reine

located in a glass-covered mall of pilasters, arches, and windows…

Galleries

was converted into a chocolate shop in 1912, when he replaced his pills with praline, giving rise to an international addiction, and no doubt, a tooth decay epidemic.

On this particular day, the theme of chocolate carried over to Brussel’s most famous fountain–a 17th century pisser known as Manneken Pis–who was undergoing a celebrated makeover with yet another costume.

The pomp and circumstance surrounding the event was palpable. A singing society of Manneken Pis enthusiasts had crowded the corner of the Incubator and Oak Street,

Pis assembly

just south of Grand Place…

Grand Place

in anticipation of the grand reveal.

Outside the circle of importance, a fringe show delighted the onlookers.

Pis pusher assembly

Pis pusher

Eventually, the Nation’s colors were pulled away to expose the little exhibitionist dressed as a chocolatier–one of 1000 different costumes he has worn throughout the ages.

chocolatier pis

But Manneken Pis has some able-bodied company. Located a short distance away, his counterpart, Jeanneke Pis is a fine squating specimen.

Jeanneke Pis1 (2)

It is believed by Belgians that the fountain was built in honor of loyalty. An old custom states that a coin tossed into the basin will bring good luck and is an expression of fidelity.

Jeanneke Pis CU1

Of course, what could be more loyal than man’s best friend, symbolized by Zinneke Pis…

Brussels, BE

…thus completing the pee pee trilogy.

Dogs are a common site and symbol around Brussels, and represented throughout history, whether at the foot of Everard t’Serclaes, a 14th century legend, embodied in thestatue of his reclining corpse–

the rub

which is believed by locals to bring luck to all passers-by who rub it.

And then there’s Tintin’s dog, Snowy,

Tin Tin

a comic sensation created by Belgian cartoonist Hergé (aka George Remi).

There is a framed beauty and whimsy about the city of Brussels.

angels

While it never takes itself too seriously,

posers

bus stop.jpg

there is just enough richness…

Mont des Arts

garden

regalness, 

Royal Palace

crown

righteousness,

Eglise Notre Dame des Victoires

alter and basilica.jpg

and Old World charm…

Arch of Cinquantenaire (2)

…to compete with any of the other great European capitals, while never forgetting its role as de facto capital of the European Union, 

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and its advocacy for social justice.

commemoration plaques.jpg

 

Skullpture Park

Everyday is Halloween at Les Catacombes de Paris. But, it’s not about dressing up in outrageous costumes, or wearing outlandish make-up. It’s about visiting a subterranean ossuary that radiates miles in all directions beyond the 14th Arrondissement of Paris.

Taking 130 steps into the bowels of time…

spiral (2)

…and following a long and winding stoney path…

stoney foot path

…through weeping ceilings heavy with humidity,

arches

and sobering humility,

cavern turn

one reaches an imposing gateway, warning: STOP! THIS IS THE EMPIRE OF DEATH!

Empire of Death (2).jpg

Beyond the entrance exists a daunting surreality that 6 million human remains reside here, integrated into the walls of 8000 year-old limestone tunnels once quarried to build Paris into one of Europe’s brightest beacons–bringing an eerie normalization to the horror and beauty of this place, for the skulls and bones are often arranged in an unnatural state of decoration.

heart of skulls

With Parisian cemeteries overflowing their boundaries, Louis XV and Louis XVI crusaded for a ban on future burials within city limits when the insufferable stench of rotting corpses began overwhelming the community. But the Church pushed back, citing that the dominion of God’s holy spirits should never be disturbed.

Charnier_at_Saints_Innocents_Cemetery

However, in 1780, a rush of Spring rain caused a wall to collapse between a house cellar and the Holy Innocents Cemetery, causing the unsanitary contents of its burial pit to flood the house.

Skullpture (2)

Thereafter, all Parisian cemeteries were exhumed,

skull wave

and the bones were transferred into the catacombs–

skull de sac

a practice that continued until 1859.

St. Nicholas Des Champs

Yet, it’s the skullpture, first imagined by Hericart de Thury, the inspector of the quarries during 1810 that resonates most among the catacomb’s 300,000 visitors each year.

skeletal tower

Although there is a bone to pick: roving security discourages tourists from touching sacred ruins or leaving graffiti behind,

skull cross

while a final bag check at the conclusion of the one-hour tour prevents tourists from poaching remnants.

embedded skulls

But if souvenirs are a must (and who doesn’t enjoy a small memento of their visit), the gift shop at the museum exit does a brisk business–

painted skulls (2)

bringing renewed life to the term “head shop”.

terminator heads.jpg