Reigning Cats and Dogs, Part 1

KT, our guide at Kadizora Camp gently rapped on our tent door at 6:30 am to accompany us to the dining tent for a continental breakfast. It was still dark, hence the escort. We were following a verbal command from camp personnel requiring us to stay put during darkness due to a heightened risk of encountering wildlife in our area.

Only last night at 11:20 pm, an elephant known to the camp as Franklin startled me awake by rubbing against the outside of our tent.

Kadizora Lodge tent

“Do you hear that?” I whispered to Leah.

“What is it?” she yawned, seemingly annoyed that I had interrupted her sleep.

“I think it’s an elephant.”

“What?!” she snapped awake.

“Whatever it is, it’s right outside our tent,” I said in my softest library voice.

Kadizora bedroom

en suite

As if on cue, Franklin’s massive silhouette lumbered along our raised deck, grabbing and tearing tree leaves with his snaking trunk as he filled the zipped screening with his immensity, leaving us paralyzed in awe until he was gone.

Damn! Where was my camera?

Grabbing my arm, “Oh my God!” Leah gasped, “Did you see that?”

It was thrilling yet alarming to watch. Adrenalin pumped through our weary bodies, wiring every nerve and depriving us of much-needed sleep. Eventually, the continuing soft grunts of snoring warthogs under our tent provided the white noise we needed to lull us back to a peaceful slumber until our 6:00 am wake-up.

“Are you ready to see big cats today?” asked KT, his flashlight in hand. 

“Absolutely,” I answered eagerly, as we followed him down the illuminated path to the safety of common ground.

“Did you have a visitor last night?” he wondered, already knowing the answer.

“We did,” I shared. “How’d you know?”

“An elephant bull-dozed the contractor’s tent last night. Turned it into a heap of broken sticks and canvas,” he said.



Once out in the bush…

Land cruiser (2).jpg

cruising along rutted ribbons of sand separated by tall grass,

truck and tracks (2)

we came across a small herd of Cape buffalo grazing…

Cape buffalos (2)

that appeared to be pulling closer together, adopting a defensive posture.

Cape buffalo

“Those buffalo are nervous,” asserted KT. “Do you see how they all stare in the same direction? Most likely, they have picked up the scent of a lion or leopard, and they are closing ranks for protection.”

herd of Cape buffalo (2)

“I think something may happen here, so we should stay for a bit and see what develops.”

KT repositioned the Toyota in the shade of a large ebony tree, and we patiently watched  the herd from a distance, scanning the perimeter for predators in the hopes of encoutering a potential kill.

“There!” he exclaimed.

A young male had emerged from the bush to the right of the herd, and just as quickly disappeared into the thicket for a closer look at the buffalo and to assess the situation.

lion tail

Wow! This was exactly what we came for, but it was a fleeting moment which left us somewhat deflated.

Undeterred, KT started up the Land Cruiser and cautiously followed the lion, who reemerged on the other side, and relocated on a shady slope upwind of the herd.

lion waiting

“This is where it will happen,” asserted KT, as he drove even closer to the resting young male.

No doubt, the lion was fully aware of us, as it turned in our direction.

lion in waiting

“He knows we are here. Aren’t we intruding by being this close?” I asked KT.

“The lions really don’t see us; they only see this truck–not the people inside,” he replied. “They don’t sense the truck as threatening, and it doesn’t smell like food. From the time they were cubs they have grown up knowing this vehicle, and they have become desensitized to its presence in the savanna. So as long as we respect them and do not interfere in their business, we can get very close to them. However, you must always remain seated, and for obvious reasons keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times.”

“Why can’t we stand?” I asked.

“The moment you stand, you change the dynamics and the lion no longer sees the truck as a familiar object, which may make him uncomfortable and put you at risk,” explained KT.

And then another lion materialized from the brush.

lion 2 in the grass

“Ahh…this makes complete sense to me now,” KT surmised. “They may be brothers, and they are working together to isolate one buffalo from the herd before the herd disappears into the brush.”

KT restarted the Toyota and pulled closer yet, thinking the timing was right and the attack was imminent. We pulled within a few feet of the new male, who made himself very comfortable beside us…

resting lion

while the first lion remained vigilant on the mound.

lion on the mound

By this time, the herd had keenly sensed the pair of lions around them, and moved into the protective thicket nearby, preempting the attack.

Realizing the chase was over, one beckoned the other…

lion calling

to a family reunion.

nuzzling

OMG!!! We held our breath, wondering what was next for the brothers. It had been an exhausting morning of hunting without a victory.

lion CU

Hence, it was time for a nap!

lion napping1

Just then, KT answered a dispatched call on the radio alerting him that a colleague had spotted fresh leopard tracks a few klicks away, so off we went in search of another adventure.

To be continued…

Birds of Botswana

Wandering through the bush of Okavango Delta in an open-air Land Cruiser, our guide/driver manuevers with deliberate speed and gear-shifting finesse through tall grass and rutted tire tracks. We are on a mission to see wild animals in their natural habitat, but these animals are never as cooperative as we would like them to be–moving from place to place in search of water and food–so they must be tracked to be found.

Fortunately, between hopeful sightings of the “Big Five” (elephants, buffalo, lions, leopards, and rhinos), and other assorted beasts of beauty, there is always a melange of birds to entertain us as we pine for the big animals we’ve come for. Our 7,000 square-mile playground is home to over 500 different species of birds spread throughout the islands, river channels, lagoons and drylands of the delta, so birds are easy to come by.

However, by no means is it possible to spot such a vast variety of birds, as our window of opportunity is short, our driving radius within the bush is narrow, and the focus our visit is not intended to be a birding safari.
Yet KT (our guide) never hesitated to point to trees in the distance, flying fowl near or far, or slow the Toyota to a crawl along the brush to identify the distinguishing features of common and special sightings as we bounced in our seats searching for wildlife.

What follows is an alphabetized compilation of birds I captured when possible–that would gratify Audubon and the birders, and delight many bird brains:

African darter on a branch
African darter, a.k.a. snakefish bird
African darter
African darter
African fish eagle
African fish eagle
African fish eagle with fish (2)
African fish eagle with catch
African sacred ibis
African sacred ibises (middle)
black-bellied bustard
Black-bellied bustard
Brown snake eagle
Brown snake eagle
Cape griffon
Cape griffon
Great blue heron
Great blue heron
Great heron with catch and hippos
Great heron with catch and hippo family
Go-away bird
Grey go-away bird
Zazou
Ground hornbill
Helmeted guineafowl
Helmeted Guineafowl
lilac breasted roller
Lilac-breasted roller
long-tailed cormorant
Long-tailed cormorants
Marabou storks
Marabou storks at a watering hole
Marabou storks stand and kneel
Marabou storks at rest
Male and female Ostriches
Ostriches, male and female
ostriches from above
Ostriches from afar
red-billed hornbill
Red-billed hornbill
Wattled cranes
Wattled cranes
Wattled crane taking flight
Wattled cranes taking flight
yellow-billed egret riding an elephant
Yellow-billed egret riding an elephant

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…

Penguins of Simon’s Town

At Boulders Beach, on False Bay along the Cape Peninsula of South Africa, within Table Mountain National Park…

Welcome to Boulders

stands a boardwalk that showcases a free-roaming colony of African penguins.

watching the penguins

When they are not busy nesting,

nesting

or caring for their hatchlings…

mother and hatchling

they are preening,

preening.jpg

and standing watch…

on the march

over the rookery.

Colony of Penguins

Some African penguins may gather in small groups before setting off to hunt for fish,

Flock of Five

while others are content to surf the shoreline,

a dip in the Atlantic

always wary of hungry seals…

hungry seal

who would easily prey on unsuspecting penguins, ready to rip open their bellies for the fish they have recently swallowed.

Ahh, the abbreviated life of an African penguin…

nesting penguin

 

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

On the Road Again…

It was an inauspicious beginning to our summer voyage. We pulled into the “secure” storage facility outside Charlotte, NC to awaken our beloved Airstream–asleep for the past 11 months–only to find a crush of aluminum along the top and bottom quarter deck of the frontside by the awning pillar.

Of course, there was no note–only a clue of “school bus yellow” paint left behind on the stainless steel stone guard. It was a devastating sight to behold that left us angry and bewildered.

The Huntersville police were called…

crushed aluminum

documentation of the damage was recorded…

documentation

and upon arrival, Officers May and Carter, filed the accident report, and attempted to recreate the incident.

side and truck

Fortunately, a spot opened for our silver bullet at Colonial Airstream in Lakewood, NJ, where it will spend the next three weeks being body-shaped by the experts for only $8,000. Meanwhile, Leah and I will be touring Capetown, traversing Botswana’s savanna in search of wild animals and photographic trophies, and taking in Victoria Falls at neighboring Zimbabwe.

Today, we are hitched and ready to roll up to Jersey to begin our newest adventure.

hitch2hitched 1

Upon our return to the States, we will reunite with our rejuvenated “Streaming 52” and chart a course around the Great Lakes for the following three months–filling a large gap from of our year-long American tour of 2017-2018–before streaming back to Florida.

Here’s where you will find us on the road should you wish to visit and say hello:

May 21: Jim Thorpe, PA
May 25: Cooperstown, NY
May 28: Niagara Falls, ON
May 31: Toronto, ON
June 4: Six Mile Lake Provincial Park, ON
June 8: Manitoulin Island, ON
June 11: Sault Ste Marie, ON and MI
June 15: St Ignacio, MI
June 20: Agawa Bay, ON
June 23: Neys Prov Park, ON
June 26: Thunder Bay, ON
June 30: Duluth, MN
July 5: Apostle Island National Lakeshore, WI
July 8: Munising, MI
July 11: Green Bay, WI
July 14: Wisconsin Dells, WI
July 18: Milwaukee, WI
July 21: Chicago, IL
July 23: Indiana Dunes NP, IN
July 25: Montague, MI
July 28: Traverse City, MI
July 31: Battle Creek/Kalamazoo, MI
Aug 2: Detroit, MI
Aug 6: Cleveland/Cuyahoga Valley NP, OH
August 10: Pittsburgh, PA
August 15: Ligonier, PA
August 19: Jersey Shore, NJ

Happy trails!

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.

20190412_124910.jpg

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, 

social issues.jpg

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

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.

Up, Up, and Away

I’ve just boarded Thomas Cook Flight #2753 from Orlando to Manchester, UK for a 2-week adventure to conduct ancestry research for a book I’m writing (see Uncertainty) that chronicles my mother’s escape from Essen, Germany following Kristallnacht.

Non-stop flight reservations to Manchester were snapped up from Thomas Cook airline (first I’d heard of them) in February for an unbelievably low, inclusive fare of $129…or so I thought.

Little did I realize that my reservation was TraveLite. I discovered during check-in that the airline was assessing me $120 to check my luggage unless it weighed under 6kg. The suitcase empty probably weighed 1 kg.

After composing myself, I gripped the carry handle tightly and I braced myself against the counter as I listened to a potential work-around by the attendant:

“Why not purchase an upgrade from economy to premium class for $125, which also entitles you to one checked bag…and for the extra five bucks, you can enjoy unlimited alcoholic beverages and snacks, 2 premium meals, a wider seat with extra leg room, and priority boarding and priority luggage retrieval for the extra 5 bucks,” she proposed.

My original seat assignment was 42G, the penultimate row next to the toilets.

“Here’s my credit card,” I quickly offered.

“You will now be in 4D,” she announced.

“A no-brainer,” I surmised.

Premium Class (2)

Somehow, I talked myself into believing that paying double was a great deal; yet I was determined to get my money’s worth. After boarding the plane, I delighted in plying through the travel amenities piled high on seat 4D. In addition to an oversized foam pillow–which added an inch of compressed padding to the existing form-fitted seat–there was also a human-sized microfiber blanket in a sanitary wrap, and a zippered vanity bag with all sorts of goodies:

  • a blindfold
  • long socks
  • ear plugs
  • ear buds
  • a single-use toothbrush and vial of vile toothpaste
  • and hand sanitizer

vanity bag

…none of which I used.

A choice of complimentary champagne or orange juice was served in tiny plastic stemware before take-off (but not mimosas, unless one asked for one of each), and premium dinner arrived 45 minutes into the flight…

premium meal

…consisting of tired chicken breast glazed with a gooey berry syrup beside a peppery mash and a sprig of tawdry broccoli. MEH! Not to be confused with Cathy Pacific or Singapore Air cuisine.

Four tiny bottles of Smirnoff vodka made The Man from U.N.C.L.E. watchable on my video screen, and should have sufficiently prepared me for a nap, but the millenial seated in front of me chose to repose in full recliner- mode, which felt more restrictive than my knee-high compression socks.

seatbelt sign

The plane landed in Manchester ahead of scheduled arrival time, despite a 40-minute delay. Baggage claim was quick as advertised, and NOBODY was waiting in line for an immigration stamp.

Manchester

Alamo outfitted me with a Renault Kadjar at the off-campus car rental building.

Kadjar exterior

which required a small adjustment in dexterity and right-side brain coordination.

Kadjar interior

Left-side shifting on a right-side drive was initially challenging, but negotiating a busy urban roundabout was downright harrowing.

Taking a 1-hour detour to Liverpool’s dockyards…

church and docks

and neighboring North Park…

before driving 4 overcast hours to Edinburgh proved to be beneficial in normalizing the weird sensation of driving on the wrong/right side of the road.

BTW, this post marks the 2-year bloggiversary for me.

2nd anniversary (2)

There’s plenty of travel ahead for the year, and I can’t wait to see what’s in store for the future.

Let the adventure continue!