Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Holocaust Took Place In The Neighborhood (Stolpersteine)

The first time that I came to Germany for a visit was just over a year ago. Prior to that visit to Frankfurt, I didn't really know what to expect in terms of World War II and the events surrounding it. I wasn't even sure if I could say the N-word or even the H-word in mixed company. I looked for signs while walking through the different neighborhoods but didn't see anything obvious. I played it safe and didn't bring up Nazis or the Holocaust or anything else in the religious and/or political realm. What I realized later was that I didn't have any better sense of what had happened here and how people feel about it.

After moving to Stuttgart, I continued to lightly and ever-so-carefully poke around about the N and H words. I again looked for indications. Of course, I asked my new roommate once or twice and a couple of friends with German sigots as well but it wasn't until our visit to Hamburg earlier this month when I finally came face-to-face with history. Our friends live in what I consider to be a fairly typical neighborhood in Hamburg and, there on the ground leading up to the front door of their apartment, was a small brass plaque:

You might not notice it at first glance because it looks a little like a utility access panel or something. This is a closer-up photo with my size 92 feet in it to show some scale:

Our friends told me that the plaques mark places where Holocaust victims either lived or worked. In some cases, like the one in front of the apartment building above, they show where the person lived and, like in the photo below, where they worked.

I took some photos and, when I got back to Stuttgart, did some research into the plaques. They are called Stolpersteine (stumbling blocks) and are the work of Cologne, Germany, artist Gunter Demming. Each 10x10cm plaque is a small memorial to show that the Holocaust "took place in the neighborhood". The artist's goal is to remind people that a real person, who lived a real life in this real place, died as a result of the Holocaust. For me, it makes what happened much less anonymous since I can see a name and I can see a house. It's as if one of our neighbors got taken away, which is what happened.

Demming takes requests from people for the Stolpersteine, has them made, and installs each one personally. According to his website, there are currently over 32,000 (!!!) of them throughout Germany and several other European countries. They each cost 120 Euros (~$150U.S.) and are sponsored by a donor. Interestingly, while reading about the stones, I came across a bit of controversy as some folks don't like the idea of having them in front of their home as they feel that it might reduce property values. He only installs them in cities where there is an ordinance allowing their installation.

Each plaque represents a single individual and starts with either "Hier Wohnte..." (Here Lived) or "Hier Wirkte..." (Here Worked) depending on if it was their home or their workplace. It's followed by the person's name, year of birth, what happened to them (Deportiert/Deported, Eingewiesen/Admitted, and so on), and the when. In the case of a person who was sent to a concentration camp or hospital, the camp's or hospital's name is next. Finally, the plaque says Ermordet (Murdered) and the date when they died.

After reading up about the project, I decided that I wanted to walk to visit all of my former neighbors' Stolpersteine within a ten minute radius of my house, which I guess is what I consider to be "the neighborhood". I found a website that lists all the plaques in the Vaihingen area of Stuttgart and put together a quick map that I could use to find the closest stones (six stones at five sites) on my walk to the supermarket.

The first one was for Gertrud Schonberger who was born in 1908 in Vaihingen. She was the 10th of 11 children, suffered from epileptic seizures during her whole life, and died in a gas chamber in Grafeneck, Germany, on November 11, 1940.

Gertrude lived in a house that was originally located behind what is now a kindergarten. You can see just make out the memorial on the right side of the driveway where it meets the sidewalk in front of the planter.

My next stop was the site where August Leitz used to live. He was born in Vaihingen in 1901 and worked as a mechanic at Bosch, which is still one of the largest employers in Stuttgart. He had one daughter and his wife owned a chocolate shop. It is said that he suffered from mental illness in his later years and died on March 31st, 1941 in a gas chamber in Hadamar, Germany.

August's house was located in the very center of Vaihingen where the Volksbank is in the Vaihingen Market. The stone is on the sidewalk just to the right of the planter between the post where the bank sign is and the planter.

About a half-block away are two stones dedicated to husband and wife Franz and Henriette Fried. They lived together at this location for about 19 years. He was a president at the local Deutschbank until he was "early retired" in 1939. Franz and Henriette were picked up by the secret police and sent to Riga, Latvia, where they died at an unknown date.

They lived on the second floor above the Deutsche Bank on the main street in Vaihingen. The stones are located in the center of the mid-gray color strip that run from in front of the bank out towards the planter to the right.

I then walked over to the spot where Gottlob Haberle used to live. Gottlob was born in Vaihingen in 1893 and was one of 13 siblings. He served Germany in World War I and became an outspoken critic of the Nazis. There is a series of documented events where he had run-ins with them resulting in arrests and time in jail as well as in concentration camps. He (officially) was killed in the Sachensenhausen camp on February 28, 1945 after a more-than three-and-a-half-year stay but there's mention of him being in the camp infirmary on May 1st of that year so it's possible that he died just before the camp was liberated.

Gottlob's stone was the first in Vaihingen where I got to see the actual house that the person lived in. It's the left house in the photo below. The stone is in the very center of the photo right at the bottom edge (it's almost out of the photo).

The last Stolperstein in my ten-minute radius is for Robert Rebmann. He was born in 1912 and had mental illness. He died in a gas chamber in Grafeneck, Germany, on May 27, 1940 at age 28. There wasn't much other information about Robert.

Robert lived where there is now an orthopedic studio about a block or so from the Vaihingen Market. The stone is located on the sidewalk in front of the building below the large display window.

I've walked down most of these streets at one time or another and some many times and had never noticed the Stolpersteine. Even though I visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., which impacted me greatly, seeing these plaques in my neighborhood personalized the Holocaust in a way that I could have never expected. History came alive as the saying goes. It's caused me to reflect on what it'd have been like in my little neighborhood in Philadelphia if people were being rounded up and taken away. How would you have felt if they "took away" your neighbors Mr. and Mrs. Smith who lived at the corner and whose kids you used to play with on the street?

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Driveway Happy Hour - Stuttgart Style

Just about a year ago I was back in Philadelphia visiting my family when I got to go to my first Friday afternoon Driveway Happy Hour or DWHH. My brother-in-law (BIL) had the idea to have people over to their house on Friday afternoon for happy hour but they wanted to keep it super casual. They decided that, rather than being "formal" by having a barbecue or even just by having people "in" the house, they'd just keep everything in the driveway. This way people would feel that they could just "stop by" and that they needn't stay for long if they weren't able to. My BIL and sister would provide the space and guests would bring a snack or two to share along with a case of beer or a bottle of wine. The tradition's lived on for a few years now and it was a lot of fun and a great idea.

Well, about a week ago I found this invitation to a Friday afternoon driveway happy hour in our mailbox:

It'd be our first neighborhood event! Horay! One of the things that I miss about Barcelona was the sense of neighborhood that I was starting to really feel living in Poble Sec. I was really hoping to be able to integrate into the neighborhood here in Stuttgart but, so far, it's a very different animal as there hasn't been any opportunities to do so.

The happy-hour-slash-block-party was hosted by two families that live on a small, private street right near where we live.

From what I can tell, people from up to about a block away were invited along with their guests. Our group was our roommate, Diana, and me along with two friends that we invited. There were about 45 people all together.

Each household was asked to bring one to-be-shared dish along with whatever they'd be grilling for themselves. There were about five different types of salads, maybe four types of bread, and a few yummy desserts. The hosts also provided a cash (honor) bar with sodas, water, wine, beer, and champagne where you took what you wanted and filled out a small slip of paper listing what you took. At the end of the evening you'd add up the total and leave the money in a box. The purpose was to offset the cost of things like plates, cups, grilling supplies, the drinks themselves, and some other things. I thought that it was a very practical thing to do, which seems par for the course of how things work in Germany. :-)

We arrived at around 6:30pm and stayed until around 11:30pm. Up until that night, I wasn't really sure who all our neighbors were but now I know a lot of them. Just this morning, I waved hi to one of our new friends. It was nice to feel a part of the 'hood.

Oh, and a note to my BIL, don't worry, they haven't been able to unseat your DWHH...yet...

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Search For The Roots Of Butter Cake

I've recently become RE-obsessed with butter cake. Yep, that buttery-sweet goodness that's so, so evil. Growing up in Philadelphia, we had some German-style bakeries in our neighborhood. A few of those sold butter cake and I loved it. Nothing says home like butter cake and eggnog coffee... I still eat butter cake every time I go back.

What got me fired up again was being contacted by a woman who lives in Philadelphia and has a website called Cakespy dedicated to, what else, cakes. She wanted to feature my March 2010 story where I talk about my worship of Holmesburg Bakery's butter cake. You can read my original story here. She's changed her original article since it was posted but you can still see one of my photos and a link back to whereisdarrennow at Serious Eats - 7 Butter Cakes We Love In Philadelphia. Actually, I believe she might be one of the few people I've seen that's more obsessed with butter cake than me.

Her and I had a couple of email exchanges where we talked about butter cake and, in one of them, I mentioned that I was living in Germany now. We agreed that what we know and love in Philadelphia as butter cake is most likely an adaptation of recipes from here. This got my fire going. I wanted to go to the butter cake Mecca if it exists. I began talking to some people here to ask what they knew of "Butterkuchen" (German for butter cake) and looking in local bakeries.

I also started experimenting with trying to master my sister's butter cake recipe. Diana took the remains of one to work with her to share and it was Gabriela, one of her coworkers, that said "oh, I like his Hamburger Butterkuchen". She sent me a link to a website called Chefkoch that has about 140 different butter cake recipes. Score!!! It was the break through that I needed as we already had plans to go visit Hamburg two weeks later.

We were only going to be in Hamburg for two full days so I figured that discovering the roots of butter cake would be tough but, right after getting off the metro the first night, I saw this sign inside the door of a closed bakery:

It didn't look like what I have in my head as a butter cake (and it had rhubarb in it...) but it definitely said Butterkuchen so I knew that I was in the right place! That night I had dreams of butter cake fairies dancing in my head and first thing the next morning I made a beeline for the bakery down the street. Since it was my first butter cake spotting and it was at the first bakery I visited, I didn't try anything - besides, who wants rhubarb in their butter cake? That's like nuts in chocolate chip cookies! I figured that if I'm in butter-cake Mecca I want to save room in my stomach for what was coming. I did snap a photo though...

I checked a few more bakeries throughout the first day but most were bread bakeries, not the Konditorei type of bakery that I was looking for (the voice of Obi-Wan just entered my head - these are not the butter cakes you are looking for ). I started to panic a bit because I wasn't finding anything and it had gotten too late to go back to the first bakery to get a sample. I went to bed that night and had nightmares with some you're-not-going-to-find-your-butter-cake-Mecca demons! Argh!

Oh well, the next day was Saturday and fortunately the bakeries in Germany are open unlike on Sunday when pretty much everything is closed. Our friends took us to the Sternschanze neighborhood where, praise be, there are a bunch of independent-style Konditorei bakeries that should have butter cakes for sale if I were in the right place...

...and I was! Each bakery had at least one cake in their case labeled as butter cake. None of them looked like my beloved Holmesburg Bakery butter cake but they did look like some of the other butter cakes that I've seen around Philadelphia (and on cakespy).

What I ended up mostly finding was a slightly-dense, cake-like crust with a somewhat-crusty buttery topping. Many of the cakes had almonds or other toppings on them as well. This is one of the better ones IMO that I saw so we bought two pieces and ate if for dessert after our fresh-fish lunch.

My search for my butter-cake roots has not come to an end. I will continue on by trying to bake one myself (with my sister's help) and, if I get the chance to go back to Hamburg, on the streets of northern Germany. I do look in every Konditorei in Stuttgart that I come across but haven't had any luck. Down here, fortunately or unfortunately depending on your perspective, it's all pretzels. I do feel like I've come close but I need to keep searching. Until then, if you're in Philadelphia, get up to Holmesburg and have a butter cake for me...

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Mitfahren - Hitchhiking The Not-So-Old-Fashioned Way

When I moved from Barcelona to Stuttgart, the one-way flight cost right around 80 Euros ($100 U.S.) and it included one 22 kilo (50 pound) bag, which I thought was a really good deal. It seems now that getting TO Germany was cheap. It wasn't until I checked into getting up to Hamburg did I realize just how cheap it was. Flights were running over 500 Euros ($600+ U.S.) round trip and the train wasn't much better at like 350 Euros. We had pretty much given up hope of going as we didn't want to pay that much for one weekend.

But, Mr. Save The Day (our roommate) recommended that we try one of the Mitfahrgeligenheit (or in English here - same data, simpler grammar) websites and...

But how???

We were able to use one of the Mitfahren sites to catch a ride up and back to Hamburg. So, what's Mitfahren? Mitfahring (that'd be Deutschlish...) roughly means "to ride with". People post on one of a few different websites that they are driving somewhere at a certain time and that they have an open seat (or more) that they are "selling". Just like airbnb, people "rent out" spaces but, in this case, it's for rides to where they're already going. Sort of like a 21st century version of hitchhiking where the driver can recoup some or all of their costs for the trip.

The process wasn't all roses though. I checked the sites daily for about two weeks leading up to our trip and emailed a handful of people without any luck. We had pretty much given up going when the day before (Thursday) we wanted to leave (Friday) I text messaged (SMS) a couple of folks that were heading up that day. Within one minute of sending one of the messages, Henneng (yes, his first name) said that he was passing by Stuttgart right at that moment and that he could come get us in TEN minutes! I told him yes and went into the other room to let Diana know that we'd be going to Hamburg that weekend after all -- IN TEN MINUTES!!!

We threw a bunch of clothes, a couple of gifts, and a few other things into a bag and - about 15 or 20 minutes later - there we were on our way to Hamburg with a semi-pro ice-hockey goalie named Henneng (BTW, I love this from-the-dashboard style of photo):

We each paid 35 Euros ($44 U.S.) for a total of about $90 to get up to Hamburg. It's a screamin' deal if you ask me since we got door-to-door service with a cool guy for 20% of what it would have cost on the train AND it took about an hour or so less. But, we had thrown caution to the wind because we only had a ride TO Hamburg since he was coming back later the following week. What I learned in the process is that the system really works best almost at the last minute so I figured we'd see what happens for our return on Sunday and, worst case, we could come back on the train.

The trip from Stuttgart to Hamburg is 99% autobahn. It's the first time that I had been on an autobahn and it was interesting. Yes, the roads are in perfect condition. Yes, everyone is a really good driver. Yes, they drive fast. Very fast. We were doing about 160kph (~100mph) at one point and CARS WERE PASSING US like our grandmother was driving. Seriously, some of the cars must have been doing 140-150 miles-per-hour or more. The cars that were driving that fast were the shiznit though. Mostly high-end Mercedes, Porsches, and Audis.

Because I had nowhere else to use these photos, and I really liked them, I'm posting them here. On the way up, we passed three large trucks each carrying one wind-turbine blade:

It's hard to tell from the photos how big they are but they are big.

About half-way up, we took a break at one of the most famous German road-side restaurants there is. It's called something like Burgermeister K├Ânig and they sell a piece of meat that's cooked over an open flame and served between two pieces of bread. It's called a Whopper, which, as best I can tell, means "very large" in English.

As wrote about here and here, Hamburg was awesome. I had a great time. We were able to secure a return trip for Sunday afternoon by Saturday night. The return was with a group of late-teen and early-twenty-something kids (?) who were coming back from a religious weekend in their nine-passenger van. It also cost 35 euros per person.

My experience with Mitfahrgeligenheit was super positive. I'm sure that there are those who feel somewhat unsure about taking rides from strangers but, just like with couchsurfing and airbnb, my experiences have been 100% positive so far. The downside is that you need to be flexible and willing to wait until the last minute. We're considering going up to Berlin at the end of June to see my favorite band play and we're planning on using Mitfahring to get there too. Cross your fingers!

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Hamburg Germany (Part 2)

This is part two of my visit to Hamburg. To read part one, go here.

On Saturday morning, everyone slept in a little bit and then we ate a nice breakfast that our hosts had prepared. They had the Euro-required Nutella, some fresh bread and pastries that are typical of the region, and great coffee. What else could you want?

Our first stop of the day was at Saint Michaelis church, which is the most famous and important in the city. It's a protestant church that was rebuilt after World War II and features a tall, copper bell/clock tower:

The highlight of the church, other than the Martin Luther and Saint Michael statues, is the view from the tower. I didn't count the number of steps (yes, there's an elevator too) but it's a lot. Looking at the pictures now, I'd guess that viewing platform is about 15-20 stories high. The trip up the stairs is worth it just to check out the construction, large bells, and people regretting their decision to use the stairs. This is the view towards the Rathaus and lakes:

One highly surprising thing at the church was that they appear to run a nightclub in the church tower just below the viewing platform. Having a party up there'd be fun but I wouldn't want to try the stairs after a few rounds!

From the church we took the metro to the Hauptbahnhof (main train station) to change lines. It's a CLASSIC European train station just like I had imagined before ever coming over to Europe. The steel structure with windows, a bunch of different tracks running through, and a ton of people with luggage. If you look carefully along the left side of the photo, you'll see three advertising banners for Ritter Sport chocolate. I saw these ads featured at the museum when I was at the Ritter Sport factory and museum last month.

Our next stop was a walk through the Sternschanze neighborhood of the city. I felt much more "at home" there as it was more artsy and interesting than other places I've seen so far in Germany. There were all kinds of different small shops, independent-style bakeries and restaurants, and lots of people walking around. It's tough to make out but the yellow building on the left side of this photo is an old abandoned building that's been taken over by squatters. Overall, an interesting city scape.

Cobblestone streets, shops, and restaurants of the Sternschanze neighborhood:

Our lovely hosts took us to a seafood restaurant in the Sternschanze that reminded me of the Paradeta in Barcelona. It's call La Sepia and I believe it's owned by people from Portugal. The food was fresh, delicious, and cheap! Highly recommended! Thanks Vivian and Steffen!

After having thoroughly gorged ourselves, we walked off our food by going to the Saint Nicolas church ruins in the center of the city. It was (partially) destroyed in 1943 and has been left in its current condition as a memorial to the victims of war and persecution. I was surprisingly moved by being in the hallowed (punny or what?) out church. There aren't too many things that I've seen in Germany that show "battle scars" like this building does.

After a break back at the apartment, we went to check out the Saint Pauli neighborhood. I didn't know that I knew the place until after I got there. It turns out that this is the area where The Beatles lived during the time they spent living in Germany. They played at a local bar for about a month during the early 60s. The streets were packed, which may have been more crowded than usual due it being Saturday night of a three-day weekend.

I really liked Hamburg and this area and where we had lunch sealed the deal for me. I could see myself living there long-term if I needed to. This is a shot of a plaza in the center of the neighborhood.

The way that every storefront is a bar with loud music and drunk folks pouring in and out of them reminded me a little of Bourbon Street in New Orleans (sorry - no link - pre-whereisdarrennow days). The difference is that they speak English here :-) and they also have an official red-light district. Behind the rusty barrier is some NSFW (not safe for work) material. If you zoom in and read the white writing on the gate, it says no kids or women (!!!). Oh, and by the way, I have no idea what's up with the dude's outfit on the right. I'm hoping that he's part of a bachelor party or something.

Like I said, Hamburg was a blast. It's funny but as I write this I realize how much of the good time that I had was because of who we were with. I also think back to the times when Diana and I have had the chance to stay together with some other amazing couples like (and this isn't an exhaustive list) Cynthia and Stefan in Frankfurt, Gemma and Bernar in the Canary IslandsJen and Dave in San Diego, and especially Alicia and Paco near Madrid (who are currently subdividing and will soon be three!). Thanks to another great couple that just got added to the list!