A sojourn across Central Europe is a visual delight. Wonderful castles, winding cobblestone paths and cathedral spires greet you at every odd turn. But just then and all of a sudden, you stumble upon memories of the Third Reich (Nazi rule of Germany). They seep through, manifesting themselves in bombed ruins, surreal death camps and innocuous motifs on a ceiling. In tour pamphlets, train conversations with fellow travellers and the booming tales of the walking tour guide – the Third Reich blinks you in the mind’s eye.
It is in Munich, in 1920, that Adolf Hitler declared the twenty five theses of the National Socialist program, thus giving birth to the Nazi Party. The venue was Hofbrauhaus, a 400-year old beer hall owned by the Bavarian state government.
Today, looking up at the ceiling inside a much popular and crowded Hofbrauhaus, you find fancy motifs, trying to best disguise the Swastika symbols that have been painted over.
Krakow, a city in Poland, is now famous for being the location where much of Schinder’s List was shot. The Jewish district, Kazimierz, is dotted with numerous shops, restaurants; you may almost forget its history if not for the odd traces here and there. The entire population was wiped out during the Holocaust. Away from the hustle and bustle, you must take time out to visit the baroque style Isaac synagogue and spend a quiet moment there. On the bimah (raised wooden platform), one can see inscribed dedications in memory of the families who did not survive the Holocaust. Once you cross the Vistula River, flowing through city, you reach the erstwhile ghetto of Podgorze. It is a starkly different world, and a sense of melancholy prevails as you reach the Empty Chair Memorial, where two thousand people were shot by Nazis post liquidation of the ghetto.
Limited portions of the ghetto walls (designed as tombstones) can still be seen. As you walk up the path along one such wall, you notice the area outside the ghetto is now a children’s park.
Another significant landmark in Krakow is Fabryka Oskara Schindlera– Emalia. In 1939, a Nazi spy, Oskar Schindler bought an enamelware factory in Krakow and employed (and saved the lives of) about a thousand Jews, amongst others. Today, the factory has been converted into a modern-looking museum which showcases the journey of the Nazi occupation of Krakow.
As the Nazi party grew in power and significance, it began persecuting people of races and ethnicities it perceived as inferior. The Auschwitz camp alone saw the persecution of more than a million people over the period of Holocaust. All possessions of the dead were collected for reuse – be it shoes, bags, spectacles… And it did not end there – even the dead were recycled; hair used to weave fabric and skin used to make cigarette pouches.
Today the camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau are world heritage sites and the surreal experience leaves an indelible impression on one’s memory. While Auschwitz I has been converted into a museum with guided tours organized; Auschwitz II (or Birkenau) now hosts a memorial and seems unchanged from the time it was abandoned.
While fleeing, the Nazis tried to destroy all evidence, burning down as many of the wooden barracks as they could (leaving only the brick chimneys) and blowing up the gas chambers (one can still see the ruins though).
During the Second World War, the Allied forces bombed and wiped away most of the Third Reich cities. Only the most significant monuments remained, so that these could serve as landmarks to identify the city for (ironically enough) bombing. The twin towers of the Frauenkirche church in Munich is one such example and today make up the city’s most recognizable symbol. These cities have now rebuilt themselves; the new buildings designed around the old and more importantly successfully carving out a legacy completely devoid of any trace of the Third Reich.
In the end, it is not easy to define one’s experiences across these places. But if anything, they make you realize the strength of human spirit in the face of all adversity; and appreciate the will, resilience and fortitude of people to move on and change for the better.