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Even with chill in the air, German locals give a warm reception

Near the middle of February the weather in Halifax County was warm one day and snowing the next. I was definitely more excited about the warm days, especially after spending most of January in the tropical paradise of Sri Lanka.

It was on one of the snowy days when I received a call that I was being sent to Germany to gather some information for one of my customers. Yes, I enjoy travel, but Germany in February did not sound like fun.

I packed some cold weather clothing and made my way to Raleigh/Durham Airport where I caught my flight to Munich via London. As I have been to Germany several times and Munich once before, I had a pretty good understanding of what to expect. As I suspected, there was plenty of snow, but the warmth of my German hosts made up for the cold and dreary weather.

Germany is a beautiful country located in central Europe with access to the Baltic and North Seas. With a population of over 81 million, it is Europe’s second most populous nation (after Russia). 

Germany is a member of the European Union, so the Euro is the national currency. The official language is German with much of the population fluent in English. The predominant religions are Roman Catholic and Protestant. 

Germans are known to produce high quality automobiles, optics and precision equipment. German automobiles such as Mercedes, Porsche, BMW and Audi make up the majority of cars on the road. 

Even though Germany is heavily populated, the country has succeeded in keeping almost one-third of the country covered in forests and woodlands. The German people love the outdoors and enjoy hunting, fishing and hiking. Though fishing and hunting are heavily controlled by the government, they both attract numerous participants. 

One unique aspect of hunting in Germany is that hunters can legally sell their bounty to restaurants and consumers. At one of the restaurants I visited, I ate fresh killed wild venison for dinner. Like all meals on the trip, it was excellent.

Germany is a federal republic with a president as the chief of state and a chancellor as the head of government. The president is elected to a five-year term, and the chancellor is elected to a four-year term by the Federal Parliament. The country is divided into 16 states, with the largest being Bavaria. The capital of Bavaria is Munich, which is the third largest city in Germany. The state of Bavaria is the home of the Bavarian Alps which are the highest mountains in Germany.

The majority of my business was in Munich, so that is where I spent the greatest amount of time. I stayed at the Hilton Munich Park Hotel right next door to the “Englischer Garten,” which was a very peaceful place even though I was near the center of the bustling city. 

The English Garden (as its pronounced in English) is a large public park created in 1789 by Sir Benjamin Thompson (an American born, British physicist). During my visit, the entire park, as well as all the roads and buildings in Munich, were covered in snow. Many of the snow-covered houses and surrounding buildings, with their Bavarian style architecture, looked like scenes right out of the fairy tale, “Hansel and Gretel.”  

Though I had little time for visiting the many tourist sites in and around Munich, I was able to take a short tour of the city. Munich has many beautiful buildings, museums and the like. As to its darker side, many of Munich’s buildings are famous for their significance in various Nazi speeches and ceremonies.  

Munich was the birthplace of the Nazi Party, so Hitler made numerous public appearances here. 

Just outside the city of Munich is the village of Dachau. The Dachau Concentration Camp was the first of the many concentration camps and extermination camps built by the Nazis. Today the original prison has been partially retained and turned into the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial site. I will tell you about my visit there later.

The state of Bavaria generally and the city of Munich specifically are both well known for food and beer. Oktoberfest, which was first held in 1810, is a 16-day festival hosted in Munich that draws over 6 million festival-goers. 

During the annual festival, festival-goers consume over 5 million 1-liter mugs of beer.  Germany has over 1,500 brands and types of beer, and Germans rank number two in the world, behind Ireland, for per person beer consumption. Though I wasn’t in Munich for Oktoberfest, there were still plenty of excellent beers to taste. The dark ones, known as Dunklesbier, were by far my favorite.  

German food, especially the hearty Bavarian style, is well-suited for the cold weather Munich was experiencing during my visit. I was lucky to have the opportunity to eat at a famous farm to fork beer cellar. My meal began with a local favorite called Obatzda, which was a cheese spread made with Brie, butter, cream cheese and peppers whipped together with red onions. I then ate fresh cheeses from cows that free grazed in Alpine pastures. The main course consisted of warm, cured pork shoulder with freshly grated horseradish and homemade black bread. The pork came from pigs that were raised in fruit orchards. The pigs not only cultivated the orchard soil, they grew fat on fruit that fell from the trees. This great meal was washed down by plenty of local lager drawn from wooden barrels that were chilled with giant blocks of ice. Oh, and for dessert I enjoyed a sampler of warm apple strudel with ice cream, chocolate cake and other goodies.

Later that evening after visiting a few more beer cellars with my new friends I saw my first, “ Wolpertinger.” Wolpertingers are said to inhabit the Bavarian forests and are often seen after a night of partying and drinking copious amounts of beer. The one I saw was displayed in the window of a local business and appeared to be a small mammal with horns. 

In the American west I have seen similar creatures, but there they are called, jackalopes.

The next day I departed Munich for a short overnight trip to the city of Jena. Jena was part of East Germany after World War II but was reunited with West Germany in 1990 after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. The city is famous for making precision machinery, glass and optics. Jena is home to the Zeiss optics company. On our four-hour drive from Munich to Jena, I saw several of the old guard towers that once watched over the border of  East Germany and West Germany. 

On the return trip we saw what had once been a collective farm. After World War II many farms were joined together or “collectivized” using the Soviet model of huge farming operations with the land owned by the government and farmed by individuals who were employees of the government. Though the farms in this area are now “privatized,” most have remained very large. Even today it’s difficult to find a small family-owned farm. 

About half way between Jena and Munich is the Hallertau region of Germany which is renowned for growing hops. The moist temperate climate there is perfect for their growth. Hops are a flavoring and stability element in beer. As you can imagine with as much beer made and consumed in Germany, hops are a very important crop. 

In 2006 the Hallertau region of Germany produced more hops than any other country on earth. The number two hop producing country is the United States with the states of Washington, Oregon and Idaho producing the largest crops of hops.

Hops are a climbing plant, so they need to be supported while growing with strings or wires.  As we drove south, on each side of the autobahn (expressway) there were telephone poles with cables running from pole to pole with strings or wires running to the ground. During the growing season, hop vines would be growing 20 to 30 feet up these strings.

Speaking of the autobahn, it is true that in some places there are no maximum speed limits. I dozed off as we were driving back to Munich and when I awoke I looked over at the speedometer. To my surprise we were traveling 185 kilometers per hour which is about 115 MPH. Even at that speed other drivers were passing us as they were traveling even faster. Before I knew it, we were back in Munich, and my visit to Germany was almost over. I had one last place I wanted to see before I returned to the farm.


Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site

It was a cold snowy day when I arrived at the entry to the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site. I had traveled for less than an hour from my hotel in Munich via tram, train and bus. The camp was surrounded by a ditch and a tall fence that had been electrified in its time. The unoccupied guard towers could be seen in strategic locations on the perimeter.

The weather certainly seemed to enhance the overall dreariness that overcame me as I walked through the same gate that had been used by the thousands of victims incarcerated here during the Nazi regime. On the steel gate were the German words “Arbeit Macht Frei.” The generally agreed upon English translation is “work will set you free.” For the majority of those who entered this camp, their only freedom would come from the death they suffered doing the work of their captors.

Years ago I had visited Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam. Anne Frank, a young Jewish girl, kept a diary while she remained hidden in the attic of a house in Amsterdam. While visiting that house I first learned about the Holocaust and the many travesties to the Jewish people committed during Hitler’s time. Anne Frank was eventually found by the Nazis, arrested and later died in a concentration camp in Bergen Belsen in northern Germany. That camp, like all the others built by the Nazis, was modeled after the one I was presently in, Dachau.

Dachau was established in 1933 on the grounds of an abandoned munitions factory. During its first year it held nearly 5,000 prisoners who were mostly political opponents of the Nazi regime. 

Over time others were sent here such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, people not liked by the Nazis or plain criminals. It was not until about 1938 when due to the increased persecution of the Jews that the population of Jewish men imprisoned in Dachau rapidly increased to about 10,000.

The Dachau camp was a training center for SS concentration camp guards, and the camp’s organization and routine became the model for all Nazi concentration camps. The camp was divided into two sections — the camp area and the crematoria area. The camp area consisted of 32 barracks, including one for clergy imprisoned for opposing the Nazi regime and one reserved for medical experiments.  (Prior to my visit to Dachau I read the book, “Priestblock 25487: A memoir of Dachau,” written by Father Jean Bernard.)

The prisoners at Dachau and those of the many sub camps were used as laborers in various manufacturing plants to sustain the war effort. Often they were literally worked to death. In Dachau, as in other Nazi camps, German physicians performed medical experiments on prisoners, including high-altitude experiments using a decompression chamber, malaria and tuberculosis experiments, hypothermia experiments and experiments testing new medications. Prisoners also were forced to test methods of making seawater potable and of halting excessive bleeding. Hundreds of prisoners died or were permanently injured.

In 1942 the new crematorium area was constructed. It consisted of the old crematorium, the new crematorium and a gas chamber made up to look like showers. There is no record of the Dachau gas chamber ever being used; however, it was the model for other camps that used this technique for the mass killing of thousands. 

On April 29, 1945 when American forces liberated Dachau, the camp had over 35,000 registered prisoners. What the soldiers found was shocking. As they approached the camp they encountered over 30 train cars filled with human corpses. 

At the camp itself they found thousands of prisoners still alive, however almost all near death from starvation, disease or other maladies. They also found bodies stacked like cordwood near the crematorium. 

Apparently the Nazis had run out of coal to fire the ovens and thus were unable to cremate any more remains.

The number of prisoners incarcerated in Dachau between 1933 and 1945 exceeded 188,000. The number of prisoners who died in the camp and the subcamps between January 1940 and May 1945 was at least 28,000 as well as an uncounted number of unregistered prisoners. It is unlikely that the total number of victims who died in Dachau will ever be known.

The Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial site can be visited free of charge and serves as a visual reminder of the many atrocities that can be perpetrated on one group of human beings by another. 

The memorial site was established in 1965 on the original site, and several original buildings including the maintenance building, a barracks building and the crematoria still exist.  There are permanent exhibits on the life and the fate of those who were forced into the camp. 

A visit to Dachau affects you in ways that are very difficult to describe. Similar to visiting a famous battlefield, you can almost hear and feel what it was like to have actually been there. I believe for most, it must have been a fate worse than death itself to have been imprisoned in Dachau. It is certainly a place I will never forget.


ABOUT THE SERIES: This is part of an occasional series written by Halifax County resident and farmer David Hudson.