Seeking Ballast on the Rhine
Wondering if Rapunzel still languished forlornly in her tower as I sailed past a string of Rhine River castles one drizzling summer afternoon, I put down my champagne cocktail—called a Hugo, after the French novelist—and took in the resplendence of the southern German countryside. The landscape was restful; my thoughts were not.
When cruising the Rhine, fairy tale castles perched atop verdant hills become the backdrop for the luxury provided by most river cruises. White linen tablecloths, original works of art lining narrow ship halls, fluffy robes and ubiquitous cocktails could lull you into complete serenity. But opulence cannot mask the reality for most vacationing Jews—and certainly not for me, a longtime Jewish travel editor—that this was Germany, and that I was sailing through Bavaria, the cradle of National Socialism.
As a guest aboard Uniworld’s River Ambassador, a ship featuring a six-day Middle and Lower Rhine River itinerary with a Jewish heritage track, my goal was to weigh Germany’s medieval charm against the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis. I would seek out both realities on this voyage from Frankfurt to Munich, determined that no trip through Germany—this was my second—would omit either.
My first balancing act came the next morning, my first full day onboard. Our group—fellow journalists as well as many of the approximately 75 passengers—disembarked for a morning tour of Frankfurt, an ultramodern city with a storied Jewish past. After a round of sightseeing, we met with Aaron Serota, a 26-year-old member of the World Jewish Congress who is active in local Jewish life. An eloquent English speaker—his father is American, his mother is Lithuanian—Serota shared that while he feels safe as a Jew in Frankfurt, he hasn’t ruled out a future move to the United States. The aphorism “Jews sit on packed suitcases,” Serota told us, was common among German Jews in the decades just after the Holocaust. Perhaps there is truth in it yet?
When I asked him how Frankfurt’s Jewish community, numbering just over 7,000, was responding to the thousands of Muslim refugees welcomed by Germany in recent years, Serota acknowledged a degree of concern amid a population already wary of anti-Semitism.
“Some Jews urge discussion and cooperation to help assimilate the Muslims,” he said. “But others are pessimistic and worry that this will end badly for the Jews. That the presence of the refugees will lead to the rise of far-right parties that are inherently anti-Semitic.”
The following day was full of castles, scenic bus rides through the rolling countryside of the Tauber Valley and an afternoon spent sampling southern Germany’s legendary white wines. This day would be devoted to UNESCO World Heritage Sites—including the magnificent Würzburg Residence and its Tiepolo ceiling fresco, the largest of its kind in the world—and hedonistic pleasures. There would be, I imagined, little of Jewish interest.
I was wrong. Stroll through most German villages, towns and cities today and you will “stumble” upon the brass remembrance blocks known as Stolpersteine, stumbling stones, placed in the street at the last known physical address of Holocaust victims. A sojourn in Würzburg alone could result in tripping over dozens of the blocks.
Travel gurus Rick Steves and Rudy Maxa put the medieval walled town of Rothenburg on my travel short list years ago. On the third day of the cruise, I got to cross it off. In Rothenburg, busloads of visitors climb the ramparts linking towers and parapets, some as old as the 13th century, and cheerfully wander alleys and squares crowded with half-timbered, gabled houses. Neither Steves nor Maxa ever mentioned a Jewish presence in Rothenburg that I could recall.
But there was one. Beginning in 1180, the hilltop town both welcomed and carried out pogroms against its Jews in three successive waves, and today, no official Jewish community exists. It was in a quiet, tree-lined square, the site of the first Jewish community, that I noticed a sign set demurely in a nearby building reading “Richard Wagner Strasse.”
“Seriously?” I asked our guide. “How could the town name this street for Wagner when the square itself has so much Jewish history?” Turns out, it was a different Richard Wagner, not the famously anti-Semitic opera composer. But that was a lesson learned: No Jew visting Germany, I suspect, can spy the name “Richard Wagner” and not take note.
It was in Rothenburg that I began souvenir shopping for my son and daughter, then 7 and 5. I found myself gravitating toward teddy bears dressed in lederhosen and dirndls, chiseled wooden hedgehogs and Faber-Castell colored pencil sets. I shunned the beer steins, scarves and T-shirts bearing the word “Deutschland” and emblazoned with a black eagle set against a German flag. But why? If I’m O.K. with visiting Deutschland, why the resistance to purchasing a soccer jersey? I have no answer for this, other than conceding that all Jews make their own accommodation vis-à-vis Germany.
That night, we welcomed Shabbat in the River Ambassador’s lounge, blessing non-kosher wine and flameless electric candles, saying HaMotzi over a rustic German boule. While the moment was far from traditional, observing any kind of Jewish ritual felt important as we cruised through a land whose people had committed genocide against Jews.
The following morning, we left the pageantry of the Middle Ages behind when we disembarked for a tour of Fürth and Nuremberg.
A center of religious Jewish learning beginning in the 16th century, on the eve of World War II, Fürth boasted a population of 3,000 Jews. But the city’s magnificent synagogues—its oldest was the Altschul, originally constructed in 1617—as well as the rest of the town’s Jewish infrastructure and businesses were destroyed on Kristallnacht: November 9, 1938. Earlier that same year, native son Henry Kissinger had fled with his family; he had been born Heinz Alfred Kissinger in Fürth in 1923.
In the 1930s, Nuremberg became a Third Reich pilgrimage city as well as the epicenter for Nazi architectural design and experimentation. While only a few of the behemoth edifices Adolf Hitler envisioned ever came to fruition, the scale of his aspirations is palpable at the incomplete Congress Hall, designed by Nazi architect Albert Speer.
Faced in thick slabs of granite, everything about the massive Congress Hall, especially its blatant attempt to copy the Colosseum in Rome, was meant to evoke strength and a sense of permanence. Today, the north wing of the unfinished shell houses a Documentation Center—a museum designation bestowed by the government on educational sites of Third Reich significance—and an exhibit that examines the economic and political conditions that led to Nazi rule. To fellow shipmate Ken Ulric, a retired English and theater teacher from Farmingdale, N.Y., the exhibit was a powerful warning not to repeat history.
“The complicity of the German people in allowing the Holocaust to happen was evident,” said Ulric, 72, who is Jewish. “Perhaps what makes that so incredibly important now is that everything shown in the Documentation Center as being behind the rise of Nazism in Germany is exactly what is happening in the United States today.”
At Nuremberg’s Palace of Justice and its Courtroom 600, Germany’s postwar reckoning started coming into focus. When we arrived, law students were staging a moot court inside the very courtroom where the international military tribunals were held, so we could only peer into the space via a plexiglass window from the exhibit floor above. Here, the unsettling feeling of witnessing justice, delayed and woefully incomplete, pervades your senses—as does the notion that you’re an extra in Judgment at Nuremberg.
The next day, we came ashore about a two-hour’s drive from Munich. For the thoughtful traveler, there is a remembrance call to pay just outside of Bavaria’s capital—the Dachau concentration camp. When the United States Army liberated the camp on April 29, 1945, there had been 32,000 documented deaths—and thousands more that hadn’t been recorded.
My nervousness about the visit turned to shock when one of our lovely female German guides began splitting our group in two, literally pointing and counting us off—you go to this group, you go to that one. A gathering of mostly Jews being selected into groups at Dachau? The moment, although completely innocent, transpired just before we entered the campgrounds and stood inside Roll Call Square, where up to 50,000 prisoners used to report every morning and night to be counted, assigned work details and/or viciously beaten.
The altered reality continued as we explored Dachau’s reconstructed barracks. The cramped, bare wooden bunk beds, we were told, were so flimsy that to this day they have to be regularly rebuilt. My guide made a quip comparing the furniture to the IKEA brand that was partly humorous at best, but I understood her urge to fill the air with relatable commentary.
After a somber walk along the poplar-lined gravel road bisecting the camp, we turned west, passing a memorial to Jewish victims just before reaching the crematoria area. Here, a half-timbered structure houses Dachau’s original two ovens, built in 1940; adjacent to that building is the far larger Barrack X, built in 1942-43 and featuring five ovens, delousing rooms and a gas chamber (the gas chamber went unused). The horror of this place followed me, even as we decamped for Munich.
It had been nine years since my husband and I honeymooned in Europe, a trip that included three nights in Munich. The intervening years had brought changes to the city. There was now a gargantuan outpost of the gourmet wonderland of Eataly, for instance. What jumped out far more, however, was the increased presence of religious Muslims, most noticeably women wearing head-to-toe black burqas in the hot summer sun. I remembered Aaron Serota’s words back in Frankfurt and wondered if Munich’s Jews, who number close to 10,000, felt the same. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the chance to ask: Our one free afternoon came on Shabbat, when the major sights and offices of the Jewish community in St.-Jakobs-Platz are closed to tourists.
On our final day in Germany, we explored the picturesque Obersalzberg region along Bavaria’s border with Austria. It was in the Alpine town of Berchtesgaden that Nazi commanders built vacation homes and conferred at Eagle’s Nest, located on the summit of the Kehlstein peak. So little of importance actually happened at Eagle’s Nest, a gift to Hitler on his 50th birthday, that it required no emotional gymnastics on my part to thoroughly enjoy the outing. Beer and bratwurst taken al fresco in the beer garden after hiking amid the tall grass and wildflowers makes for a remarkably pleasant experience.
My sojourn through Bavaria ended the following morning. There had been surprises on the trip, perhaps none greater than learning that castle fatigue is a real thing. In this respect, my determination from the outset to strike a balance—a taste of Germany’s medieval splendor, a dose of Holocaust history—proved helpful. Beyond simply exploring Bavaria, I urge the curious Jewish traveler to engage with the region’s people and history, never forgetting the prewar German Jews who just 80 years previously had called this gorgeous land home.
WHAT TO SEE
FRANKFURT AM MAIN
Germany’s capital of high finance is home to one of Europe’s oldest ghettos, the Judengasse (Jews’ Alley), established in 1462. In the mid-18th century, Mayer Amschel Rothschild founded a banking empire here that would make his family’s name synonymous with Jewish wealth.
In 1987, when foundation stones from several demolished Jewish homes were discovered in the course of a public works project, protests by non-Jewish citizens of the city to preserve them resulted in the establishment of Museum Judengasse. The dilapidated stone foundations, maps and recreations paint a vivid image of how the Judengasse functioned before its demolition at the end of the 19th century.
Just outside the museum is Frankfurt’s original Jewish cemetery, which predates the ghetto and was in use through the early 19th century. Despite Nazi destruction of two-thirds of the 6,000-plus sandstone headstones, markers for Rothschild as well as several notable rabbis survived.
Close to 12,000 mini steel blocks bearing victims’ names, birthdays, places of death—and, when known, time of death—line the Jewish Holocaust Remembrance Wall around the perimeter of the cemetery. Amid the trailing ivy of one section, blocks for the Franks—Annelies (Anne), sister Margot and mother Edith—remind onlookers that a family most associated with Amsterdam in fact hailed from Frankfurt.
Frankfurt’s Westend Synagogue, an imposing Egyptian-Assyrian edifice built from 1908 to 1910, survived World War II relatively unscathed. Every Jewish group in Frankfurt, from Orthodox to liberal, today has a home in the building, though it is the Orthodox who worship in the main sanctuary.
The Jewish Museum Frankfurt, housed in a former Rothschild mansion located far from the confines of the Judengasse, is slated to reopen in 2019 after extensive renovation.
Go to juedisches-frankfurt.de for more details on Frankfurt’s Jewish sights.
Home to the indescribably over-the-top Christmas emporium Käthe Wohlfahrt, Rothenburg may be the most famous—and touristy—medieval walled town in Germany.
There are plans to make the site of an ancient mikveh at No. 10 Judengasse—this Judengasse was home to Rothenburg’s second Jewish community, which formed in 1370—into a museum. While strolling through the plaster-and-timber charm of the town, bear in mind that in the 1930s, conservative Rothenburg became known as the ideal community, the most German of German towns, and regularly hosted field trips for visiting Nazis.
NUREMBERG AND FÜRTH
Between 1933 and 1938, Nuremberg hosted the Nazi Party’s annual meetings. Here, the Documentation Center Nazi Party Rally Grounds encompasses two parts: Congress Hall, designed to hold 50,000 people but never completed, houses the permanent exhibition “Fascination and Terror”; nearby, the central grandstand of the Zeppelin Field dominates the landscape, though its right and left flanks—long columned wings that architect Albert Speer based on the classical Pergamon Altar—were demolished by the United States Army, which also blew up the grandstand’s crowning swastika.
Several miles northwest of the parade grounds, past Nuremberg’s bustling main square whose towering Frauenkirche cathedral is built upon the ruins of the city’s first synagogue, stands the Palace of Justice. The building’s eastern wing contains Courtroom 600, where the Nuremberg trials took place. A huge wooden cross now hangs over the central bench, an addition to the courtroom since the 1940s. A multimedia exhibit chronicles the trials and notable players. My favorite display was a lineup of the journalists who covered the proceedings, among them Walter Cronkite, John Steinbeck, John Dos Passos and pioneering female writers such as Rebecca West, Erika Mann and Marguerite Higgins.
The story of the once thriving Jewish community of Fürth, a neighboring city six miles outside of Nuremberg, is told through priceless ritual items once belonging to local Jews—Torah scrolls and ornaments, menorahs, ketubahs—at the Jewish Museum of Franconia. The building itself, however, may be the most interesting exhibit of all. The onetime private home of a succession of Jewish families beginning in 1702, its attic level features a room with a sophisticated retractable roof that converts the space into a sukkah.
Make your way to St.-Jakobs-Platz to discover the story of contemporary Judaism in Munich. The square is home to the Ohel Jakob Jewish community center, whose tenants include the glass-and-stone Ohel Jakob Synagogue, the kosher Restaurant Einstein and the Munich Jewish Museum.
Plan several hours to explore the haunting grounds of Dachau, located 10 miles northwest of Munich. Passing through the iron gates reading “Arbeit Macht Frei” serves as an appropriately chilling introduction to Roll-Call Square, the reconstructed barracks and, farther off at the western side of the grounds, the crematoria. Several memorials and chapels dot the perimeter of the five-acre prison camp.
Hitler’s Alpine lair—known in the English-speaking world as Eagle’s Nest but in fact named Kehlsteinhaus—overlooks the Obersalzberg region. The views of the surrounding German and Austrian countryside are breathtaking—and partly responsible for why Hitler, notoriously scared of heights, only made 14 documented appearances. To reach Eagle’s Nest, visitors can either hike a moderate, winding trail from the access road below or ascend in the same cavernous elevator that Hitler famously distrusted.
Inside Eagle’s Nest, look for the dark red, almost blood-colored Carrara marble fireplace that Mussolini presented to Hitler. The missing chunks of stone trace back to the Allied takeover of the facility, when soldiers gouged out one-of-a-kind war souvenirs.
Berghof, Hitler’s summer residence halfway up Kehlstein and where he entertained dignitaries such as the Aga Khan and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, was demolished by the Bavarian government in 1952, as were the nearby homes of Hermann Göring and Martin Bormann. However, the elaborate bunker system that once connected the homes is largely intact and accessible by two entrances: under the Documentation Center and next to the Hotel Züm Turken.
IF YOU GO
In 2019, Uniworld will expand its Remarkable Rhine Jewish heritage itinerary to 11 days, with scheduled stops between Basel and Amsterdam. Also next year, the luxury operator will launch a second Jewish heritage track along the Danube, with 10-day sailings between Vienna and Prague. Rates for these cruises, aboard the River Empress and River Princess, start at $4,000 per person, double occupancy.
Avalon Waterways offers two Jewish heritage itineraries—eight days on the Rhine and 12 days on the Danube—with one sailing each in 2019. Rates start at $6,000 per person, double occupancy.
Cruise lines such as Viking and Crystal curate Jewish excursions in major cities, for instance the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and a walking tour of Prague’s Jewish Quarter. Crystal is one of the few lines that can accommodate kosher travelers.