February 13

Overlooking Dresden

When I first visited Dresden in the mid-1990’s, to my eyes it looked like the city had just stepped out of World War II, even though, in retrospect, it must have undergone a great deal of renovation by that time.

Dresden miraculously survived the first five years of World War II intact, having dodged the Allied bombings that destroyed much of Berlin, Hamburg, and other German cities. Many Germans felt that the city had developed a de facto immunity, perhaps because of Dresden’s cultural significance, the beauty of its historic buildings, churches, and neighborhoods, and its diminished value as a military target.

For this reason, in early 1945 refugees streamed into the safe haven of Dresden from all directions. By February of that year, things were looking bleak for Germany; the Russians were closing in from the East, the British and Americans from the West. As stories of Russian atrocities filtered in from refugees from the East, Erika Dienel, a 20 year-old typist in Dresden, recalled the feeling on February 13:

“[W]ith a small ration of red wine, we brewed a hot punch and talked about where we would go should the Russians overrun us. But the Americans were also not too far away, and we only hoped they would come first.

World War II: The Allied Counteroffensive, 1942-1945

The Americans did come first, but hardly in the way the residents of Dresden could have imagined.

When the air-raid sirens began that night at ten minutes to nine, Erika and her family headed down to the cellar.

25 minutes later, approximately 250 British and U.S. planes unleashed over 800 tons of explosives and incendiaries. The largest bombs weighed two tons and were called “block-busters” because of their capacity to take out a city block.

When Dresden residents came out of the basements to see their city in flames, they thought the worst was over. They were wrong.

Around 1:20 am, just as crews were trying to put out the flames, a second wave of over 500 bombers arrived, dropping 1,800 more tons of explosives on the city. Because the first bombs had destroyed the city’s air-raid siren system, most received no warning of the attack.

By the morning of February 14 the entire center of the city was engulfed in a firestorm. Waves of bombers continued. Just when survivors would think the bombings had ceased, they would begin again. The temperature in the center of the city reached 1600 degrees Fahrenheit. Thousands of families who sought shelter in their cellars suffocated to death as the oxygen was sucked up by the massive fires.

The bombings continued until February 15. Erika Dienel survived like many others by diving into the Elbe River:

“Dresden was to burn for seven nights and days…In the centre there was no escape. The town was a mass of flames. People, burning like torches, jumped into the Elbe on this cold February night…

Every house we passed stood in flames; under our feet there were bodies, nothing but bodies.”

Kurt Vonnegut was an American POW in Dresden during the attack. His experiences there inspired the novel Slaughterhouse V in which the main character, Billy Pilgrim, is part of a squad of prisoners whose job is to remove countless corpses from destroyed buildings and shelters.

The Dresden death toll will never be known because the city at the time housed hundreds of thousands of uncounted refugees. The lowest estimates are in the tens of thousands. The highest are around a quarter million

The following year Dresden residents held memorial ceremonies on February 13, but the Soviet-occupied territory was under strict supervision:

“Anything that makes 13 February appear as a day of mourning is to be avoided…It is the mayor’s opinion that if a false note is struck when 13 February is commemorated, this could very easily lead to expressions of anti-Allied opinion. This is to be avoided under all circumstances.”

Dresden, Tuesday, February 13, 1945

Now however, Germans young and old gather in Dresden on the evening of February 13 and remember the lives lost here, known and unknown.

I was in Germany in March 2003, with a friend from East Germany, and learned Dresden was again a cultural landmark, “Paris of Germany” they called it, rebuilt like a Phoenix, except for the Dresden Church that remains as a reminder of the bombing.

That evening we turned on the TV see another city on fire. U.S. planes had just begun bombing the city of Baghdad.

My friend translated the reporter:

“Shock and awe.”

Could it Happen Again?: Holocaust Remembrance

January 27

Today the UK and Germany remember the Holocaust of World War II when 6 million Jews were killed in concentration camps across Europe, along with untold numbers of Roma, communists, homosexuals, the mentally and physically handicapped, and political prisoners.

January 27th marks the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. It is estimated that as many Jews were slaughtered at this one camp than remain on the entire European Continent today.

To this day the Jewish population has never reached its pre-1939 numbers.

Berlin Holocaust Museum Memorial
Berlin Holocaust Museum

It’s easy to be tolerant in times of prosperity.

In better times Hitler may not have appealed to the Germans. But in times of scarce resources the search for a scapegoat as a possible way out was too appealing. The illusion Hitler sold was that Jews were responsible for the recession. The reality was that the seizure of Jewish assets and property meant “free money” for the rest of the nation. It was an offer too good for the Germans to pass up, even if it meant the “dehumanizing” of a minority.

Could it happen in America?

It would take a major catastrophe.

In the days after 9/11, though not widely reported in American media, hate crimes were committed against Muslims for no reason other than their religion. A Sikh man in Arizona was killed simply because he looked Muslim.

The nation waited for the speech in which the President made it clear to the public that Muslims in America are Americans, entitled to the same rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And that violence against anyone based on their religion is contrary to the American way of life.

The speech never came. In the crusade against evil, preventing hate crime was not on the top of the agenda.

The weapons of hate aimed at one minority today can and will be used more effectively against others tomorrow, whether they be Jewish, Muslim, Hispanic, Mormon, Catholic, Socialist, or Scientologist…<

As a pastor in Germany once wrote:

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.

[Note: in the Washington DC inscription at the Holocaust Museum, the “Communist” line is not included.]

Former Indonesian President Suharto, the genocidal architect responsible for the killing of 183,000 East Timorese, a quarter of East Timor’s population, died earlier today [2008].

His obituary reads: Suharto Leaves Legacy of Stability in Region. In some places ethnic cleansing still falls under stability.
And “Never Again” is an ongoing struggle.

What is Holocaust Memorial Day?


In Pictures: Holocaust Memorial Day

[published January 28, 2008]

The Truth about Santa – St Nick’s Eve

December 5

About this time of year parents deliberately wait in long lines in overcrowded shopping malls so their kids can sit on the lap of a fat red stranger.

Some cultures might call this odd. We call it Christmas.

Though the Christmas season begins commercially on Black Friday, and religiously on Advent, tonight kicks off the season for children in Europe, including the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, the Czech Republic, and Austria.

Saint Nicholas, 1838 - by Robert Weir

It’s St. Nicholas’ Eve, and though the date and the figure go by many names, the themes remain the same: kids and candy.

The jolly bearded guy known as Santa Claus in the United States is actually is an amalgamation of numerous folk figures.

The United States imported “Santa Claus” mainly from the Dutch Sinterklaas. Long before that, the Dutch learned of the saint, Saint Nicholas, from Spanish sailors, who believed Saint Nicholas had the power to save sailors by stemming storms at sea. Even today Sinterklaas arrives in Holland on or around November 17 each year, not on a sleigh from the North Pole, but on a ship from Spain.

No one would be more surprised at the role Santa plays in modern society than Saint Nicholas himself, who was actually a bishop in the ancient town of Myra, Turkey (then Asia Minor) around 300 AD.

Saint Nick, old skool

Saint Nicholas was imprisoned for 5 years for refusing to recognize the Roman Emperor Diocletian as a god. He was released after the Christian Emperor Constantine took the throne and removed Christianity from the Roman “terrorist watchlist.”

Today Saint Nicholas is remembered less for his role in destroying pagan temples than for his acts of kindness toward children. Like secretly giving poor families of young girls money for a dowry, so they could marry rather than become prostitutes.

Legends of Saint Nicholas’s devotion to the poor spread throughout the centuries. As his posthumous fame grew, children would leave their boots outside on St. Nicholas Eve in the hopes that St. Nick would fill them with goodies.

In Protestant Germany, Martin Luther replaced the Catholic gift-giving Saint Nicholas with the Christkindl, or “Christ Child.” Over time Christkindl’s name morphed to Krist Kindel. You may know him however as Kris Kringle.

In North America Santa Claus travels by reindeer-guided sleigh, while in Europe the gift-giver is accompanied by figures such as Zwarte Piet (Black Piet) or Krampus (The Claw), the latter being a goat-headed demonish entity who whips bad children with a switch. The Bad Cop to Santa’s Good Cop.

Whether you call him Santa, Kris Kindl, or Father Christmas, you better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why: Christmas is still 20 days out and believe me, you don’t want to end up on Krampus’s naughty list!


There Really is a Santa Claus – William Federer

Sankt Nikolaus und der Weihnachtsmann

Saint Nicholas Customs Around the World


St. Nicholas Day in Germany

Fall of the Berlin Wall

November 9


Today is the 20th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall.

November 9, 1989 marked the end of an era and a new beginning for millions of Germans, who had been separated from their countrymen for nearly three decades by boundaries both tangible and intangible.

The original Wall was a far cry from the approximately 90-mile long concrete leviathan of 1989, parts of which still survive today. The original wall was merely a wire fence that went up virtually overnight in August 1961. The Wall served to stop the population drain from East Berlin, as residents of the Soviet sector moved to the West. An estimated 2.5 million people emigrated from East Germany during the 1950s.

“On what became known as “Barbed Wire Sunday,” some awoke to find themselves suddenly trapped in the Soviet sectors, separated overnight from families, friends and loved ones who happened to live on the other side of the Wall.”

The Day the Berlin Wall Went Up

In 1962 the wire fence was enhanced. In 1965 authorities erected a concrete wall, which got its final major makeover in 1975.

The Wall symbolized the isolation of East Germany under Soviet control, and its fall on November 9, 1989 symbolized a new freedom for millions of East Germans.

Tim, a Berlin resident who was 8 when the wall came down, learned about capitalism at an early age. He earned money for his first bicycle by selling pieces of the Berlin Wall to tourists. When asked if people ever sold random pieces of concrete pretending they were from the Wall, he replied, “There was so much Wall, you didn’t need to. The supply was endless.”

Living with the Wall

German Unity Day

October 3

On this day in 1990 the great divide between East and West Germany, the front line between Soviet and Western ideologies for over four decades, was erased in an instant. Germany became one nation for the first time since 1945.

Fall of the Berlin Wall, Nov. 9, 1989
Fall of the Berlin Wall, Nov. 9, 1989

The reunification of Germany on October 3, 1990 followed the dramatic destruction of the Berlin Wall on November 9 the previous year.

A whole generation of young Germans have grown up post-reunification; the oldest are now adults. Despite the spontaneous joy and camaraderie that accompanied reunification, for many years a few Germans on both sides of the former Iron Curtain waxed nostalgic and echoed Ronald Reagan’s sentiments with a twist: “Mr. Putin, Put back this Wall!”

The West’s discontent lay partially in the economic struggle they had shouldered since 1990, adapting to both a new European Union and the weaker economy of the East. In the East, on the other hand, though they may have lacked fancy cars and TVs during the Soviet era, many missed the security that socialism afforded.

Unity Day doesn’t provide a solution to economic woes, but it offers something more than that. An opportunity to declare something that for many decades was forbidden in Germany: pride in one’s country.

The expression of national pride, something taken for granted in much of the rest of the world, was a big no-no during the half-century following World War II.

On October 3, as Oktoberfest nears its end, the ban on pride is lifted for a day. From the snow-covered peaks of Garmish-Partenkirchen, to the white cliffs of Rugen, to the harbors of Hamburg, to the phoenix that is Leipzig, Germans come together to celebrate what they all have in common.


Late September – Mid-October

This week starts off the world’s largest folk festival and bier-drinking extravaganza.

Oktoberfest takes place, as the name implies, in September. It lingers into October, but tourists arriving mid-month will be disappointed to find they’ve arrived just in time for the dregs. During Oktoberfest the center of Munich metamorphosizes into an amalgamation of Bier Tents, the largest of which–the Hofbrauhaus tent–holds up to 10,000 people.

Germans drink their beer by the liter, not the pint, and refer to the beverage as “liquid bread”. Back in the day, because of corrosive pipes, it was safer to drink fermented alcohol than water.  The quality of the water has improved over the centuries, but the love of bier has not diminished.

Hofbrauhaus Tent
An Oktoberfest Bier Tent

Oktoberfest dates back to the royal wedding of Bavaria’s Crown Prince Ludwig to Princess Theresa of Saxony in 1810.

Ludwig was the son of a French army officer, Maximilian, the brother to the Duke of Zweibrucken.  Due to a string of fortunate deaths, (I love royal European genealogies) Maximilian inherited dukedoms of Zweibrucken and Berg, as well as the titles Elector of Bavaria, Count Palatine of the Rhine and Arch-Steward of the Empire. Maximilian gained the title of King of Bavaria in 1806.

The Crown Prince was married on October 12, 1810, and Munich celebrated with a great horse race five days later. The outdoor event was so popular, Ludwig and Theresa’s anniversary was celebrated annually, the first beer tents appearing in 1818. The people kept celebrating even after King Ludwig was forced to abdicate during the Revolutions of 1848.

His glory would be overshadowed by his grandson. Ludwig II, also known as ‘Mad’ King Ludwig (though historians shun this moniker). The latter was famous for creating some of Germany’s most beautiful castles before his mysterious death in 1886

Neuschwanstein Castle
Neuschwanstein Castle

The German monarchies were abolished altogether after World War I, but the tradition of Oktoberfest carries on to this day, as Germans require little incentive to consume mass quantities of beer, pretzels and sausages. At last year’s Oktoberfest, 6 million participants poured down 7,000,000 liters of the “liquid bread” and produced approximately 2 million pounds of refuse.

More on Oktoberfest as the celebration continues!

The author and friend at the world-famous Alpine Village Oktoberfest, in Torrance, California

Witches Night – Walpurgisnacht

April 30

Now to the Brocken the witches ride;
the stubble is gold and the corn is green;
There is the carnival crew to be seen,
And Squire Urianus will come to preside.
So over the valleys our company floats,
with witches a-farting on stinking old goats.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust

Exactly six months before Halloween, the Germans and Scandinavians celebrate Walpurgis Night, May-Eve, Beltane, or Hexennacht, aka Witches’ Night.

According to legend, on the last night of April, witches would meet at Hexentazplatz (Witches’ Dancing Place, conveniently named in case you got lost and had to ask a tourist) near the town of Thale in northern Germany. From there they would fly upon broomsticks to the highest point in the Harz Mountains, a summit called “The Brocken.”

At the Brocken there they would dance with the devil, a horned he-goat demon named Lord Urian, who would grant them mystical powers…for a price. Scarier than even the orgiastic rituals of Walpurgis Night, is the unholy marriage of Google-translation and the German language in describing this event:

“On the chunk of dance legend after all witches in a large circle around the fire and then the devil kiss the butt. Then you can have with the devil marry and receive from him magic powers.”

Don’t be Frightened!

OK, be a little frightened. For centuries, tales spread of sordid revels atop the Harz Mountains. To this day, the Brocken is haunted by the spirits of angry tourists who felt cheated having yet to encounter a single supernatural event.

There are many reasons this mountaintop became synonymous with the dark legends of Deutschland. Its inaccessible height and remote location for one—okay, that’s two actually. Also, the region wasn’t settled until after 1000 AD. (That’s the German equivalent of 1950 in America.) And perhaps most important, the Brocken is the site of an unusual and eerie optical illusion known as the Brockengenspenst, or the “Brocken spector.”

“As the sun sinks, the shadow of a walker cast from a ridge becomes magnified and an enormous silhouette appears on low-lying clouds or mist banks below the mountain. Although it’s only a shadow, the distant “specter” appears to be walking at the same pace, doggedly tracking the observer’s path.”

— Season of the Witch – Walpurgisnacht in Germany’s Harz Mountains

In other words, in the centuries before the meteorological sciences, many a Brocken hiker were spooked by their own shadows. At least one visitor was literally frightened to death.

Germany may not have been the birthplace of the witch, but it did propagate the image of the witch as we know it today, through its literature, legends, and its ‘litigation’:

“Between 1623 and 1633, the prince-bishops of two Bavarian towns, Wƒrzburg and Bamburg, ordered the burning of at least fifteen hundred “witches” between them. The victims of Wƒrzburg’s bishop included his own nephew, nineteen priests, and a child aged seven. One reason why medieval Germany developed an obsession with stamping out “witchcraft” may lie in the food that was being eaten. If the weather is warm and damp, rye (then a staple crop) can produce a poisonous fungus called ergot. Hallucinations, fits, pinpricking sensations, muscle spasms: the symptoms of ergotism are similar to the effects of LSD, which itself is derived from ergot.”

Witches of the Harz Mountains

Walpurgis got its name from an 8th century saint. Walpurgis had nothing to do with witches, but April 30 was her feast day. In the Church’s effort to Christianize Germany’s tenacious pagan roots, they made Walpurgis Night about Walpurgis’ fight with the dark forces of paganism.

Yet still the pagan rituals continue to this day…

Walpurgis Night, the time is right
The ancient powers awake.
So dance and sing, around the ring
And Beltane magic make.

Doreen Valiente, Witchcraft for Tomorrow

Brocken postcard

Brocken “Money” – a tourist gimmick from the 1920s

Brocken postcard collection from the late 19th/early 20th century.