Searching for Closure, Part 2

I wanted more time in Amsterdam, but time wouldn’t allow. I still had Germany to consider, and Bergen-Belsen was my first stop. Google Maps predicted a 4.5 hour drive. 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

In the beginning, I felt rushed seeing the truth laid bare, given the limited time I had to spend inside the exhibition hall while researching clues of family connections.

exhibit hall

But when I forced myself to slow down and pay closer attention to the evidence, the displays revealed a deeper significance.

Square window boxes dropped into the cement floor showcased the unusual value of common personal effects…


unearthed by archeologists after the British incinerated the camp to control the spread of typhus that permeated the surroundings.

camp_model

Walls of displays detailed the story of the horrors within…

mission.jpg

Because of correspondence from Bernd Horstmann, curator of the museum’s Register of Names, I learned that Grandma Rose arrived 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 of incarceration 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 had seen enough, but I needed to see more. I just didn’t know if I could process anymore at the time. But there was one last exhibit that I could not ignore inside the Film Tower, no matter how difficult it seemed.

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…

Touring the Tower

Let’s face it! The Eiffel Tower is one of the most photographed structures in the world. Since celebrating the 130th anniversary of its opening last week, more than 7 million people a year now flock to gawk at it’s imposing presence along the Champ-de-Mars.

the approach

I’m certain that it’s been photographed from every imaginable angle, in all sorts of light–day and night–and in all sorts of weather conditions.

But not by me! After arriving in Paris and settling in my hotel in Montparnasse, the first thing I wanted to visit was the Eiffel Tower. To me, it meant that I was in Paris!

piercing the sky

There’s security now. Since July 2018, a 3-meter high wall of bullet-proof glass (2.5 inches thick) protects the “Iron Lady” and visitors from vehicle-ramming attacks, while two sentried openings scan personal property. But the inconvenience is minimal compared to the lines that form for stairs and elevators to the top.

Once inside the enclave, the enormity of the tower is that much more imposing, stretching the length of one football field in all directions from the center to its foundation footings.

looking up

Examining the intricacy of the lattice can be hypnotizing,

Y (2)

when studying the symmetry of shapes,

through the center

or it may seem random and haphazard by a clash of metal girders.

twisted

But if abstracting the Eiffel Tower appears upsetting or unsettling, a postcard version of this Parisian landmark can always please the senses…

tower and garden

of those who long for the familiar,

traditional

or those who are easily pleased.

Paris Vegas 1

 

Views of Edinburgh

There’s no need searching for fabulous viewpoints in Edinburgh, because the city is chock full of them. And each one delivers the most splendid views of a town steeped in Scottish lore and history. All that’s required is an ability to scale any of the neighboring hills, and the payoff is heavenly.

For instance, a hike up to Castle Rock…

Castle Rock

to access the gate to Edinburgh Castle…

castle entry

provides a fantastic overlook to the south end.

South view

But the bigger reward becomes more apparent after buying an access ticket to the castle for £18,

approach

and stepping back through time to follow in the footsteps of Scottish royals who traversed the cobblestone roads since the 12th century.

Castle ramparts

Once inside Foog’s Gate, one discovers St Margaret’s Chapel–the oldest surviving building in Edinburgh–built around 1130 by David I, and dedicated to his mother Queen Margaret, who was later canonized in 1250 by Pope Innocent IV.

The chapel was designed in a Romanesque style with small, irregular stones fashioned in a simple rectangle, and underwent major reconstruction in 1851 by Queen Victoria,

chapel knave.jpg

and was updated with Douglas Strachan’s stained glass windows in 1922.

Stained Glass St Margaret's Chapel (2)

St Margaret’s Chapel commands a view of north Edinburgh,

looking north

looking to Leith.

new city

In addition to the best westerly views in the city…

looking west

the Castle’s royal palace…

Royal quarters mantle and plaster ceiling

offers a glimpse of the elaborate decoration of the birth chamber of James VI, son of Mary Queen of Scots.

Royal Quarters birth room

A visit to the Great Hall is also in order…

Great Hall crest

boasting an interior ceiling constructed without nails–looking much like an upside down hull of a boat–

Great Hall timber ceiling

and housing a variety of vintage weapons displays.

weapons display[2151].jpg

armored soldiers

Several exhibits on the mount recount the many coronations of its kings and queens,

coronation.jpg

the fighting character of the Scots…

war museum

and an active tribute memorial to all of those who have fallen in battle throughout the ages.

War memorial plaza.jpg

Lion guard

Scottish National War Memorial (2).jpg

Once outside the castle entrance, a walk down the Royal Mile…

Royal Mile marker.jpg

past The Hub (where the famed Fringe Festival headquarters resides)…

The Hub.jpg

will likely lead to an encounter with a bagpipe player…

bagpipes.jpg

standing by one of the many Closes of Edinburgh which look out to the north and south.

Devil's Advocate Close

Continuing further east is St. Giles Cathedral, founded in 1124, and the focal point of the Scottish Reformation in the 16th century.

St Giles.jpg

Inside the church are an array of small knaves and chapels enhanced by extraordinary examples of intricately detailed stained glass.

St Giles' Robert Burns window

Views of Edinburgh also abound from Calton Hill,

Calton Hill map.jpg

where several monuments dot the landscape, whether it’s to honor Horatio Nelson,

Nelson Monument

Dugard Stewart,

Dugald Stewart Monument

or the war veterans who lost their lives in the Napoleonic Wars.

National Monument

Once the site of medieval tournaments and festivities during the 1400s, Calton Hill was also the best place to catch public executions in the 1600s.

Observatory House

But today, it’s best known for it’s iconic views of the royal residence, Hollyrood Palace positioned beneath Arthur’s Seat,

Hollyrood Palace

and a look down Princes Street.

Waterloo

Views notwithstanding,

view from Calton Hill.jpg

the real appeal of Edinburgh lies in its streetside presence, where it’s never too early (or late) to duck inside a pub or a whiskey bar on Grassmarket…

Grassmarket shops

for a pint or a single malt to really put a different spin on the city views.

 

High on a Hill

High up on Hill Street overlooking Glasgow’s valley…

Glasgow skyline composite (2)stands a proper and prominent synagogue, as if telling all concerned, that the Jews of Glasgow are here to stay, and equally deserving of a splendid house of worship to celebrate Shabbat and festivals that can easily compete with a host of surrounding Anglican and Roman churches.

The Garnethill Synagogue is Scotland’s oldest, built between 1879 and 1881 with flourishes of Romanesque Revival on the outside,

shul exterior1

and Byzantine Revival architecture on the inside…

shul lobby (2)

leading to a grand sanctuary…

bimah and ark

once defined by an Orthodox tradition of seating women upstairs, apart from men who prayed downstairs.

Garnethill Synagogue panorama

But that edict has changed at Garnethill Synagogue for a different reason: there’s simply not enough of a remaining congregation to fill the seats. Men and women are now reunited downstairs, but (thank God) still segregated by sitting on opposite sides, gaining entry through separate doors.

Harvey Kaplan delights in telling me the story of Jewish immigration to Scotland.

Harvey

For the past 11 years, Harvey has actively advocated for the past. He leads the charge as the director of the Scottish Jewish Archives Centre, an adjunct to the Garnethill Synagogue, working to make Scottish Jewish heritage relevant to a shrinking Scottish Jewish community that now favors bigger Jewish population centers in Manchester and London.

His vision will soon reach fruition thanks to a grant and remodel to be finished by 2020.

SJAC lobby

I had contacted Harvey earlier in anticipation of my efforts to research of my mother’s journey as a girl through Britain during the Holocaust.

After a tour of the sanctuary, we got down to business. Harvey’s mission to preserve the nation’s Jewish identity became clearer to me as I reflected on my drive to Haddington and Polton earlier in the day.

Before my appointment, I first stopped at Whittingehame House–

Whittingehame House (3)

–one-time residence of Lord Balfour, Prime Minister, statesman,

Whit from the side

and architect of the monumental Balfour Declaration, which granted homesteading rights to Jews in Palestine after Middle Eastern maps were redrawn following WW1.

In the wake of Jewish children seeking refuge in Britain to escape the Nazi scourge, Lord Balfour’s nephew and heir, Viscount Traprain, offered his home and its extensive grounds, surrounded by twisted yew trees,

yew tree.jpg

as a farm school from 1939 to 1941 for teenaged refugees interested in making Aliyah to an Israeli kibbutz in the near future.

Sheep Meadow.jpg

I became aware of the change to the estate when I noticed an online ad (https://www.onthemarket.com/details/3579306) detailing a ground floor, 4-bedroom flat with an asking price of £1,850,000. But still, I had to see it for myself.

sign.jpg

Unfortunately, nobody was home. Perhaps, I should have made an appointment with the realtor.
Whit rear
From Haddington, I traveled to Polton, a community near Lasswade in Midlothian, in search of the Polton Farm School, the successor to Whittingehame Farm School, when Whittingehame closed its doors in September 1941.
The trip became more challenging after Google maps rejected my request, and left me hanging. I drove through several country hamlets looking for a sign (from God), and found the clue I was looking for by the side of the road.
Polton Inn
I spoke to the lassie tending bar at the Polton Inn, who admitted to being a born and bred townie who knew a wee bit of history about the area. As I spun my story, she perked up.
“You absolutely must go next door and speak to the gentleman of the house. Certainly, he would know better than anyone what became of the school, ’cause I know for certain there was a school there back in the day, for I believe the farm you’re speaking of is on the other side of our wall,” she said.
Polton Inn wall
I loved listening to her brogue, and wished I could perfect that lilting tone. “You mean I was that close?” I wondered.
“Will you come back and tell us what he said?” she asked.
If there was any doubt, the gates said it all.
Polton Farm
Unfortunately, the farmer turned me away, informing me that all the property was split up in the 1960s to make room for development. There was nothing more than that.
Harvey didn’t have very much on Polton House either, but he’s optimistic. Somewhere, he surmises, there’s an attic somewhere in Scotland filled with a treasure trove of documents and photographs that’s waiting to be discovered by the descendants of early refugees, immigrants, and freedom seekers who willed a way to make a life for themselves and their families.
And when that should happen (and it does happen), Harvey will be there with his troupe of volunteers to dutifully catalog it all in order to preserve Scotland’s Jewish identity while there is still something left to preserve.
When we parted ways, I returned to the Glasgow overview,
glasgow spires
and I realized that the sky’s the limit.

Cummer Attractions

In celebration of Pi-Day, Leah and I scored theater tickets to the national tour of Waitress, presenting at Times-Union Center in downtown Jacksonville. Wanting to take advantage of fair weather, and never having seen Jacksonville during daylight hours, we decided to make an afternoon of it by visiting the Cummer Museum of Arts and Gardens located in Jacksonville’s Riverside neighborhood, a short distance from our evening venue.

entry

And it was well worth the trip.

statue (2)

In 1902, Arthur Cummer joined his parents, Wellington and Ada at their St. Johns River homestead, and built a half-timber English Tudor style house for Ninah, his bride. Arthur and Ninah began collecting art soon after.

Only the designated Tudor Room remains from the original house, so “the public at large may enjoy some insight into the personality of the owner.”

Cummer study

A series of interconnected museum wings are separated by a courtyard paved with terra-cotta tiles from the Cummer’s old roof.

courtyard

The original Cummer collection plus acquired collections of paintings, sculptures, and Meissen porcelain fill fourteen galleries, span 3200 years, and range from:

2100 BCE… 

frieze

to 100 CE…

1 AD mosaic

to 13th century…

religious art

to 17th century…

European Renaissance

to 18th century…

GW Gilbert Stuart

to 19th century…

Ponce deLeon in Florida

…to contemporary artists like Harlem Renaissance sculptor, Augusta Savage, whose work is currently exhibiting in the Mason Gallery.

Augusta Sanders (2)

Following Arthur Cummer’s death in 1943, Ninah wished to establish a “center for beauty and culture…[for] all of the people” on the residence grounds.

live oak over gardens

Upon the widow’s death in 1958, the estate and gardens were granted to the DeEtte Holden Cummer Museum Foundation. Soon after, buildings were demolished (with the exception of the Tudor Room) in favor of a state-of-the-art museum that opened in 1961, followed by a detailed restoration of the property’s Italian Garden…

garden under repair

the Olmstead Garden…

English garden

and the English Garden–

English garden1

all of which were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2010 for outstanding “American landscape design in the first four decades of the twentieth century.”

As northeast Florida’s largest and most significant museum and arts education center housing over 5,000 works of art…

archer

the sky is the limit.

BTW…the show was a tasty morsel about a bittersweet topic.

A Walk in the Garden

Leah and I awoke to an overcast day. The forecast promised more of the same, which was fine with me as long as it didn’t rain. We spent the morning searching for a new destination to stretch our legs–maybe find a bike trail, or at the very least, a walking trail not too far from home.

After a late breakfast, we headed south toward Flagler Beach, a salty seaside community with orange sand from crushed coquina…

dunes and beach

midway between St. Augustine and Daytona. We were in search of Betty Steflik Memorial Preserve, a cache of 217 acres of marsh and mangroves tucked beneath the Highway 100 causeway,

causeway

and bordering the Matanzas River.

Matanzas River

A mile or so of boardwalking through the salt marsh was pleasant though unremarkable. However, it offered me time to play with my newly acquired 1.7X tele conversion lens (see Zoom!).

egret takes off

avoiding the wake

Anticipating a loop around the preserve, we were surprised that the trail dropped us at a different parking lot annexed to the town’s public works complex that was surrounded by dilapidated residential trailers planted only blocks from the beach.

cistern1

And so we continued our tour of all things industrial and commercial, until we returned to the preserve entrance.

bridge piers

Feeling underwhelmed by our walk-around, I opted for the slow road home, following A1A North on a prayer that the seaside scenery might somehow improve on a somewhat lackluster afternoon.

We passed through nothing of consequence: nondescript shops and eateries, assorted bungalows, big machines for county road repairs, and mainstream subdivisions along the way. But when we reached Palm Coast, the road opened up to a dense maritime hammock of hardwood trees to our left, and I felt compelled to u-turn for a closer look.

We turned into Washington Oaks Garden State Park,

National Register

and heard from the gate attendant that the azalea blooms had just reached their peak, and that was enough to pique my interest.

gazebo and fountain

As we completed a self-guided tour of the grounds…

Washington Oaks Historic District

I felt relieved, knowing that our Sunday excursion had been rescued.

mask

The formal gardens were beautifully unusual,

live oak

lushly carpeted,

green garden grasses

and precisely manicured.

garden path

We left the area under partly sunny skies…

marshian sunset

knowing that we would return another day to devote more time to the miles of trails through the hammock.

And weather permitting, we will cross the highway to follow the coquina rock formations that line the Atlantic side when the tide is nigh.

The Rocks

 

 

 

 

 

Zoom!

Imagine playing recreational golf with one driver, an iron, and a putter. Accessing the game would be so much easier without the expense of all those clubs. And when playing the course, think how much time could be saved between strokes by not having to decide which club to select for each shot.

While it’s not the perfect metaphor, I’ve approached photography with the same minimalist philosophy. I’ve been photographing with a Panasonic Lumix digital bridge camera (fixed zoom lens) for the past few years instead of lugging around equipment that I might use, but most likely never would.

How do I know this? Despite decades of shooting a variety of photography disciplines (landscape, nature, portrait, street scene, architecture, etc.) that required a variety of prime and telephoto lenses neatly arranged in my equipment bag, I’ve noticed that I’m rarely disappointed by the versatility of the LEICA DC VARIO-ELMARIT 24X optical zoom permanently mounted to my Lumix DMC-FZ300, while also freeing myself of a senseless burden that would invariably sink deeper into my shoulder with every step and slow me down.

It’s truly a remarkable lens for nearly all occasions! The range and reach of the camera’s 25 – 600mm zoom has seldom left me needing more lens, or regretting my camera choice in favor of a full-fledged DSLR…until now…since there are times I’m wishing I could gain greater detail by getting closer to my subject.

For instance, walking across a boardwalk over marshland strictly limits my ability to get closer to wildlife. The following photograph is a hand-held shot of a heron that caught my attention at a scenic overlook while hiking along the Guana Loop of Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve (GTM). 

heron on a limb

At 24X zoom, the image is acceptable, but if I choose to isolate the heron by cropping the bird to full frame, the resolution suffers greatly. Ideally, a tripod could have provided better image clarity, but the digital noise would still remain the same.

heron on a limb (4)

However, I discovered another available option that allows me to get a bit closer without relying on the camera’s built-in digital zoom–which I’m inclined to deactivate since I prefer to shoot RAW. Years ago, Lumix created a 1.7X tele conversion lens with adapter, extending the optical zoom to 40.8X, or the equivalent zoom range of 1020mm. But alas, this accessory has been discontinued.

Fortunately there’s a secondary market for almost everything photographic, so after a brief visit to the internet, I found a seller on eBay that offered the requisite 1.7X tele converter, a close-up lens, mount adapter, and tripod mount ring, all for a fraction of the original price of the tele lens.

And I bought it!

extender setHaving traveled to the GTM with my new/used acquisition, and having survived the burden of carrying extra gear, I assembled the lens and carefully threaded it onto the existing camera lens. I planted my feet, braced myself and shot the heron again!

heron on a branch (2)

A side by side comparison tells the story…

The image on the right is noticeably cleaner, even though the focus appears to be a bit soft, informing me that capturing a crisp, hand-held shot at 40.8X is not my specialty, and probably ill-advised.

Ugh! So now I’m forced to carry a tripod or monopod to make better use of the lens extender. Oh, well. There goes the economy of my photography.

marshland (2)

Then again, I could simply stick to the limits of the original lens…

GTM Estruaine (2)

but then again, with an impending trip to photograph big game animals in Africa at the beginning of May, I’m much better off adjusting to three golf clubs instead of one.

The Other Side of Cozumel, Part Dos

You may recall from The Other Side of Cozumel that sometimes vacations don’t always turn out as expected. However, since my first taste of Mexico in 1975, subsequent trips south of the border were much more enjoyable and fulfilling. I returned again and again to celebrate the culture and bask in the balmy weather. I ate my fill of fresh fish, tacos and tamales, and always managed to melt my stress away with the help of good tequila.

My status improved in 1988 when I earned my diver certification at a casual Playa del Carmen resort, and thereafter, got spoiled enjoying the drift dives in Cozumel along Santa Rosa wall, or deep diving Devil’s Throat in Punta Sur, or floating through the aquarium of sea-life that is Palancar Reef.

Past Mexican vacations have been spent exploring neighboring hotspots in the Quintana Roo vicinity:

Holbox to the North …

Holbox tour

Holbox beach

Chaccoben to the South…

Chaccoben temple @ Costa Maya

and Tulum in between…

The Castle ruin

Tulum coastline

But the one thing I never got around to doing over the past 45 years was explore the eastern shore of Cozumel. Not that I was avoiding the prospect; it’s that the opportunity never presented itself…until lately.

Rather than rent scooters for the day–which Leah would have never agreed to–I rented a modest Nissan sedan, and the two of us made a day of it.

We started out in Centro by the Iglesia de San Miguel, a charming Catholic parish…

San Miguel stained glass (3)

that always draws a queue of cruise ship passengers on shore excursion,

San Miguel (2)

to fill out laborious paperwork at a tucked-away Thrifty satelite office across the way, but that was the medicine we were willing to swallow to save nearly 60% from the rental fee quoted by our hotel concessionaire. From there it was a race to escape 1.5 miles of pedestrian madness between the Ferry Pier and the International Pier Cruise Terminal.

As we left city life behind, the jungle returned with thickets of mangroves and saw palmetto. Occasional glimpses of coastline were visible through a string of scattered beach club parking lots that offered access to rows and rows of lounge chairs, palapas, inflatable water slides, and cocktails for all the cruisers fresh from duty-free shopping or the San Miguel Church tour.

We settled on Playa Palancar for its no-fee beach access, tasty tacos and snorkeling activity. Unfortunately, the fish had reservations at a different beach club at the time, so we were forced to relax before moving on to the southern tip of the island, and a stop at the Rasta Bar at Punta Sur…

reggae beach bar

for views of the ocean,

rasta's beach club chairs1

some old-time religion,

jamaican jesus

and window shopping…

rasta's

for Mayan medalians.

masks and medalions

Back in the car, we continued around the horn to the backside of the island…

cozumel map

until we reached Playa San Martin, a cozy outpost with a sparse sandy beach…

wild beach

colorful palapas,

banos (2)

backdoor boutique

and a population of lazy iguanas.

iguana king

blue iguana

iguana (2)

The two-lane road continued North to an island mid-point, where we reached the Transversal crossroad that transported us back to the population center, dodging scooters, trucks and taxis all the way to the leeward side hotels…

north zone sunset

where high above the rooflines,

door to the rooftop

I was just in time for the evening floor show.

sunset (2)

 

 

Ancient Light

The day in St. Augustine started out dreary, with passing drizzle and smoky cloud cover, but with the polar vortex finally loosening its grip on the Midwest, and the California coastline bracing for epic rain and mud, the local weather seemed well within the bounds of “I can’t complain” conditions for a Florida weekend.

Nevertheless, taking a chance on an outdoor activity seemed risky. So Leah and I hedged our bets and we traveled to St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum, where $12.95 will buy a St. Johns County resident general admission for one year. We figured that we could always duck the rain…

Parabolic view

by browsing the Keeper’s house,

containers

and following the marble tiles to the landing anchorage.

approach

Then it’s 219 steps to the top.

signs 2 (2)

Congress authorized new construction in 1870 to replace the fading “Old Spanish Watchtower” by the shoreline, that’s evolved since the late 1500’s.

$100,000 funded three years of construction.

signs 1 (2)

Tourists have been climbing the corkscrew stairs since 1910. The Philadelphia iron works…

stair risers

hug the walls of the 165 foot Alabama brick structure,

signs 3 (2)

occasionally interrupted by keyhole glimpses of life…

looking out.jpg

until the stairs reach an opening…

looking up

to a 360-degree lookout… 

lighthouse view2 (3)

that’s capped by 370 hand-cut glass prisms arranged in a beehive shape towering twelve feet tall and six feet in diameter.

difracted fresnel

The original lens was restored in 1992 because of vandals, 

The Fresnel Lens (2)

and re-lit by a 1000-watt bulb the following year.

difraction close-up (2)

Today, the tower represents the oldest brick structure in St. Augustine, and shines a bright light on a community that preserves its heritage, protects through its presence, and invests in its future.

lighthouse overview

 

 

Flamingo Road

The Vindanta vacation resort in Riviera Maya maintains a habitat for flamingos smack in the middle of their property, and neither Leah or I had any idea that it was even there, despite a sign posting by the iguana-laden boardwalk…

boardwalker (2)

just outside our building.

grand mayan 3

We must have walked past the entrance to the preserve a dozen times or more, oblivious of the signage, probably thinking that Flamencos had more to do with a lounge or restaurant concept than the pink birds that occasionally keep company with gnomes and jockeys on people’s front lawns.

So imagine my surprise after learning of a conversation Leah overheard between two hotel guests who expressed such delight in watching these birds, that we had to see this unexpected treat for ourselves.

A short walk off the beaten path revealed a contained area at the toe of a foot-shaped lagoon,

bay

where a “pat” of flamingos (maybe 20 or more) were cruising around a contoured wading pool surrounding a small island of palms and mangroves.

bevvy of birds

These quirky birds couldn’t stay still for a moment. They mostly followed the leader of the pack–a five foot specimen that often craned its long loopy neck…

black beak

above the preeners,

pretzel neck

wings akimbo

and the feeders–

standing guard

beak dip

as his elongated legs wallowed through the rippled water…

4 birds

while keeping a watchful eye…

one stand out

on the humans who regulary monitor and manage the water conditions.

maintenance

Much of the pat’s time was spent trolling the curve of the pool with their immense beaks fully immersed in water, moving their heads backwards in an inverted position…

trollers and waders

with their beak sharply angled downward from the middle–the narrow upper jaw fitting into the lower jaw–intended for separating mud and silt from the food that they eat.

close-up

The filtering is assisted by hairy structures called lamellae which line the mandible and a large rough-surfaced tongue, helping them extract the brine shrimp that constitutes their main source of food and the reason for the florescent color of their plumes.

Their fingers feature a webbing that prevents them from sinking in the mud they regularly wade through when feeding.

one leg

The Caribbean pink flamingo (American) reproduces on still waters, or on small islands within shallow salt water ponds and lagoons where it builds a mud mound with a small indentation for depositing its single egg (rarely two). The incubation period lasts from 28 to 32 days, and nesting is performed by both parents. Its offspring feed on regurgitated food for 75 days, although they can feed on their own after 30 days or so.

Flamingos reach maturity between two and three years of age, reaching recorded ages of 27 years in the wild and 50 years in captivity.

reflections (3)

No doubt, these fascinating birds have it made in the shade.

pat

Critter Cam

Security at our new house in St. Augustine has been a concern from the beginning. While we truly enjoy our privacy, we are physically isolated from all of our neighbors–alone in an outlying cul-de-sac that so far has eluded the new home construction spike occurring throughout our community.

waterfront

However, it’s not as if we are inherently paranoid, or that we have a bucket full of anecdotal evidence to suggest that we have something to fear in our neighborhood. On the contrary, we’ve found our faraway neighbors to be friendly and caring.

But there are times when it would be nice to have some neighbors around to keep a watchful eye on things. Or have them circle the wagons in the event of an ambush.

Which would lead us to conclude that we are pretty much on our own when it comes to protecting our property.

home exterior

The other day, Leah and I were introduced to a new neighbor for the first time, who asked the all-to-familiar question:

“So which house is yours?”

Which was answered in a patterned response:

“We’re pretty much by ourselves. Just look for the lonesome house with the red truck on the remote cul-de-sac,” I replied.

screenshot (75)
Look for the blue lollipop–bottom left

Our neighbor responded, “I know that house. It’s very pretty and lush by you, but aren’t you scared being all alone? Maybe you should get a dog!”

Well, no! Although we are dog friendly, there’s no plan for a dog in our household. Certainly not while we still intend to travel.

However, we had considered getting an alarm system, which doesn’t require regular walking or a vet. After an exhaustive search on the internet that challenged my inner geek, I opted for the wireless and flexible RING system to best integrate all security components (video doorbell, front door smartlock, cameras, floodlights, sensors, keypad and base station) under one umbrella. And the monitoring system–no contract necessary–was a genuine bargain at only $100 a year, with COSTCO picking up the first year expense.

I hooked everything up over the course of a few days, despite dangling from the top of a 14 foot telescoping extension ladder.

screenshot (78)

With all devices connected and communicating, I believe Alexa was immediately impressed, but Leah, not so much. She was waiting for a sign that the installation was worth all the accompanying chirps, bells, and whistles of every indoor/outdoor motion or open door–all in the name of stranger danger.

And then we discovered the unintended benefits of exterior motion detection: CRITTER CAM!

In addition to raccoon reconnaissance, we’ve also observed possums, bats, feral cats and cougars, which gave us a better perspective of what was digging up our yard since our move.

But then, I wasn’t prepared for the camera-mugging bluejay who seemingly came out of nowhere to find an unexpected perch…

Realizing that the video capture happened in a blur, I dissected the imagery to secure a better understanding of what I was watching…

flight1a

flight2

flight3

flight4

flight5a

flight6

flight7

Again…

Little did I realize–to my surprise–that RING would open up a (w)hole new dimension of peek-a-boo. 

When It Rains, It Pours

Leah and I were about to step out to take care of an outdoor errand, when a graying sky turned into a routine Florida downpour, putting a damper on our schedule until the storm abated. We were watching the rain from my office window, just as the city sanitation truck arrived, chugging towards our cul de sac for the weekly trash pickup. But this time around, something went terribly wrong.

The driver of the truck entered the cul de sac by driving down the center of the road instead of staying right and following the full curve of the road. Perhaps, the driver thought the truck’s turning radius could negotiate a tight 180° turn out of our dead end from his middle-of-the-road position without jumping the opposite curb…but he was wrong. The vehicle rolled over the curb–its right wheel catching a water supply cover that split under the weight of the cab–which crushed the water valve and sheared the 3-inch supply line underneath.

Suddenly, we were looking at an impropmtu geiser eruption in our front yard, rising 60 feet or more.

gusher1.jpg

It was enough for me to grab my camera and photograph the ensuing drama, as if I was part of a crime scene investigation.

police arrival

The police were called–filing a report and issuing a summons to the driver–but stuck around for a while to gawk at the local man-made attraction.

Thirty minutes passed before a Water Department maintenance crew eventually arrived on the scene to figure out their next step.

service truck and geiser

With water being such a precious commodity (see Well Done!), Leah and I wondered how much had been wasted.

“They better not be charging us for that,” she asserted.

“How could they,” I reassured, “It’s not like it was our mistake.”

First order of business…

checking the break

…inspect the damage…

water pressure

…then locate the water shut-off…

turning off the water

…and stop the flow…

water recovery.jpg

to enable repairs.

geiser containment

digging out

tools of the trade

pumping water

excavating the pipe head

After an hour of tinkering, the damaged fitting was finally replaced…

cracked pipe

…with something shiny and new.

new cap installed

I asked the crew chief how much water he thought had been lost.

crew chief

“Y’know, I have to fill out an EPA report that accounts for missing water,” he explained, “So, if I was to go with a 1000 GPM flow-rate over 45 minutes, I’d be looking at approximately 45000 gallons (or 170,000 liters) lost.”

According to city water rates, that’s equivalent to a $500 water bill, making this accident one very expensive car wash.

 

 

 

Becoming My Parents

Hiking along New Jersey State and County Park trails the day after Thanksgiving made a lot of sense to Leah, who orchestrated our first return to New Jersey since moving to St. Augustine five months ago. She promised a whirlwind week and a-half of personal appointments and commitments packed with a variety of doctors, friends and family members, all laced with an emphasis on over-eating.

And so, during the course of our visit, as advertised, our food-centric itinerary always included a meal punctuated by scintillating table conversation on family history and folklore–touching on recipes, obituaries, and kin outcasts, with politics and religion occasionally creeping into the dialogue.

But mostly, everybody seemed to be preoccupied with their health. And God help the person who would innocently ask, “So, how are you feeling?” Because this question would open the floodgates for respondents to freely reassign their HIPAA proxy on the spot so they could casually discuss their current condition down to the last agonizing ache and pain, notwithstanding the severity surrounding their prognosis and course(s) of treatments, always followed by a couple of random doctor-horror stories.

It seemed like everyone had a health-related story to tell–whether it was about themselves or someone they knew–not unlike my parents and their friends, who would gather at holiday occasions to compare notes about their medication intake. It was uncanny that the of crux of nearly all of our relationships was now firmly rooted in our faded glory and eventual demise.

Any outsider, after eavesdropping on any of our sessions of non-stop kvetching might be surprised to learn that we are still breathing and have more than one day to live.

And so, it was predictably refreshing to carve out some time to clear our ears of prescription patter, and find an activity that combined friendship and calorie burning. Of course, our opportunity to hike was completely weather-dependent, considering the prior Nor’easter and the Arctic chill that had settled on the Atlantic states.

Like many Northern transplants to Florida, Leah and I had become preoccupied with weather-watching, so we might bask in the warm glow of knowing that we had finally escaped the unfriendly winters by relocating to St. Augustine. But now that we were back in Jersey, it was time to face the hard cold facts of winter; Ramapo Valley Reservation (NYNJTC_RamapoValleyCountyReservationMap-2017) was 18°F at the Reservation trailhead, and expecting to peak at 23°F by the afternoon.

MacMillan Reservoir was partially frozen and dreary…

lake (2)

with the exception of distant water reflections.

frozen reflection

Trails were camouflaged… 

blue trail (2)

by crispy fallen leaves–densely packed and slippery–despite the assortment of Skittles-colored trail blazes nailed to forest saplings.

cut logs

Brooks were running fast and high…

brook flow1 (3)

making each water-crossing challenging and hazardous.

We continued our four-hour excursion with the winds picking up across Campgaw Mountain.

panorama looking east

And it became clear to me that marching through the New Jersey woodlands was not the best birthday present I could have given myself. The cold had already taken its toll on Arlene’s arthritic fingers. Leah, who had recently succumbed to lower back pain and acute Achilles tendonitis was now complaining about her knees.

My knees were also aching from sliding down one too many slippery slopes. Even Doug, the youngest of all of us by at least eleven years had to admit that his right knee was locking up occasionally. The ladies cut their hike short, taking a quick detour to the parking lot, but Doug and I wore our intrepid hats. We continued to the feature waterfall along the Brookside Trail with few delays or complaints…

waterfall

giving us bragging rights to a 7.5 mile accomplishment,

frosty rocks

and leaving me more than ready for my true birthday present to myself: a one-hour Swedish massage at a local day spa, if only to rub my aches and pains away for another day.

 

 

 

 

Philadelphia Freeze Out

The Frontier flight was 15 minutes early, arriving from Jacksonville to Philadelphia in under 1½ hours–

Welcome to Philadelphia

just ahead of the Nor’easter that would ultimately drop 6 inches of snow and ice on the region, creating a classic commuting catastrophe.

airport

Yet despite the nail-biting adventure of driving through icy lanes of traffic moving sideways, and the total disregard of STOP sign awareness, there was a calmness to the city that I had never noticed before, giving the illusion of Walking Dead abandonment.

First order of business was food. Move over Pat’s and Geno’s, because there is a rival cheesesteak to adore at John’s Roast Pork in South Philly. Fortunately, the lousy weather short-circuited the out-the-door line that is almost always guaranteed during lunchtime.

John's Roast Pork1.jpg

My son, Noah ordered two 12-inch sandwiches with mushrooms and onions that could easily feed a family of four, but proved worthy of two consecutive lunches for each of us.

Then, we were off to his apartment in Fishtown, an up-and-coming gentrification project that is locked between empty lots boasting scattered mattresses, and hastily-erected, fresh-bricked row buildings that contradict the broken sidewalks–all within viewing distance of Ben Franklin bridge…

Franklin Bridge1

and walking distance to Reading Market.

Iovine Produce.jpg

After an overnight stay in Germantown, a walk around the neighborhood revealed only remnants of the shot of winter that overwhelmed the area during the past 48 hours.

alley

In fact, the signs of fairer weather…

single rose

unexpectedly eclipsed the season’s first storm…

moving leaves (2)

and reminded Mother Nature…

nesting vine

that while the first snow may have melted…

oak boughs

the signs of autumn…

pumpkin arch (2)

were slowly fading…

autumn door

to green and blue.

arch room.

 

Southern Fortitude

It was a bad day for Col. Charles Olmstead and the Confederate Army on April 10, 1862, when Capt. Quincy Gillmore’s Union artillery attacked Fort Pulaski from the northwest beachhead of Tybee Island, forcing its surrender thirty hours later,

direction dial

and proving that a seemingly invincible coastal fortification that required 25 million bricks, 18 years, and $1 million to build could never catch up to evolving weapons technology.

Overview

Even 7½-inch-thick mortar walls were insufficient to protect the Fort’s garrison from the explosive bombardment of Gillmore’s experimental rifled cannon fire from one mile away.

gate

Construction on Fort Pulaski began in 1829 as part of the Third System–in defense of Savannah’s 20,000 citizens and dynamic seaport–adopted by President Madison in response to the War of 1812.

Gorge Wall

With Fort Sumter under Confederate control by Christmas, 1860, Gov. Joseph Brown ordered state militia to seize Fort Pulaski–still unoccupied by Federal troops–on January 3, 1861…

Demilune

…and transferred ownership to the Confederacy following Georgia’s succession on January 19, 1861.

the yard

It was a controversial gambit that ultimately escalated into eleven States joining the Confederacy–spiraling the South into Civil War by April 12, 1861.

spiral stairs