TRAVEL – GERMANY AND CZECH REPUBLIC

June 22 – July 4 2012

 

Dan and I recently traveled to East Germany and Czech Republic.  Dan spoke at a conference (CYTO 2012) in Leipzig, we met up with friends and family, and walked in the footsteps of Dan’s Grandmother and Grandfather, Irma Hutter and Jacob Ehrlich.   Here’s an account of our travels.

Day 1- Leipzig

Arrived in Leipzig via London and Berlin (long, long day+).  Leipzig has a beautiful baroque old town with a soviet-era city built around it.  We found our way to a cobblestone alley lined with sidewalk cafes and had our first “typical Saxon” meal.  Like much of the German diet, it was heavy on the meat and potatoes, but we washed it down with some excellent beer.

We walked back to our hotel past the Nicolaikirche (St. Nicholas church), which was the center of the peaceful uprising that eventually succeeded in uniting east and west Germany in 1989.  The church has an unusual pale green and pink vaulted ceiling, with a palm motif.  We arrived just in time to hear the end of a performance by a guest choir and the effect was heavenly.

Afterwards, walking through the adjoining square, I was reminded that the anniversary of Michael Jackson’s death must be coming up, as we saw many MJ lookalikes drinking and enjoying the mild evening.

 

Day 2

While Dan attended the conference I met up with Milica, Horst, and Senta Schoeppner.  In 1961, when I was 8 years old, my father was sent on a State Dept. grant to teach Operations Research at the University of Belgrade, Yugoslavia.  The family accompanied him and we lived there for six months.  At the time it was, of course, the height of the cold war and Tito held an iron grip on Yugoslavia.  (Here’s an article my dad wrote at the time for the Santa Barbara News Press regarding the case for giving aid to Yugoslavia.)


Santa Barbara News Press Clipping: “T.B. Slattery Yugoslavia Bound”

 

 

There were few Americans there and I made friends with some local Serbian girls: among them Milica and her sister (now deceased) Vesna.


Belgrade Friends Aug 1961

 

Some fifty years later, Milica’s daughter Senta contacted me through FB and the family arranged to meet us in Leipzig.  (Milica had emigrated to Germany in the 70’s, married Horst, and the couple settled in Bonn, where they had two daughters.)

 

The most touching thing about seeing this childhood friend after so many years were the memories she had of my family.  To an unprivileged child in Yugoslavia in 1961, our American lifestyle must have seemed lavish, restricted as it was by the unavailability of some of the ingredients of our diet and other luxuries.  Milica remembers my mother pressing her with extra mashed potatoes when she visited for dinner.  My mother knew that she liked to draw, and when we returned from a trip to Munich – and the American PX there – we presented her with a huge box filled with colored pencils in every hue.  Milica later went on to become a graphic designer after she emigrated to Germany.


Old friends – Milica and Celia

 

Milica said, “To me you were America.” Back in those days, due to our role in WWII and the Marshall plan, Europeans tended to regard us Americans with unambiguous joy and esteem, an experience that seems to have diminished over my years of traveling abroad, due to anger over some if our foreign policy choices (enough said.)

 

The Schoeppners and I took a bus tour of Leipzig, where we saw the Volkerschlachtdenkmal monument, a colossal stone memorial to the over 100,000 soldiers who died in this spot in one of the decisive battles of the Austro-Prussian war.  Erected a century later, it was intended to be a reminder and deterrent to war…. ironically, it was finished just before the outbreak of World War I.


Milica, Senta & Celia
Horst and Senta

Later, we all met up with Dan and with Emma Ehrlich, who is traveling in Europe for the summer, and had a nice dinner.


Dan and Celia

 

Day 3 – Stasi Museum

 

Every cold war espionage movie that you ever saw comes to life here, and once again, truth is stranger than fiction.  The exhibits in the museum are relics from the Soviet era which document the lengths that the Stasi – East Germany’s version of the KGB – went to spy on it’s citizens.  They photographed them on the street, listened in to their phone conversations and opened their mail.  When all else failed, there was a program to destabilize people’s lives by interfering with their careers and families.  So no – you’re not paranoid, they really are watching you.


Emma & Celia in front of fragment of Berlin Wall

Day 4 – Prague

 

Emma and I get up early and take the train to Prague.  We want to experience as much of the city as we can before picking up our rental car there.  Prague is glorious; overrun with tourists but exuberant with Baroque architecture, sculptures, street musicians, people laughing and drinking in cafes. We walk across the Charles Bridge (picture) and visit the castle, vowing to return.


Emma & Celia on bridge, Prague

Street Musicians in Prague

Day 5 Leipzig – Colditz Castle

 


Dan and Celia with “Fraulein” Boulet; Colditz Castle

For another layer of German history, we drive to nearby Colditz.  Here there is a castle that was used by the Nazis for high-security Allied war prisoners.  These were prisoners that had a high risk of flight, and the castle has now turned over a large part of its grounds to a museum celebrating these remarkable men, and the triumph of the human spirit.  Over the five years that the prison was in operation, there were over 300 attempted escapes….about 10% of them successful.  The prisoners devised ingenious plans, including building a wooden glider, digging tunnels, and masquerading as Nazi officers, tradespeople and others in order to walk off the grounds.  The prisoners made disguises out of bits of cardboard, blankets, and other materials smuggled inside.  Here are Dan and I posing with a picture of Lt. C. A. Boulet, a French officer  who very convincingly impersonated a respectable Fraulein, but was caught when “she” dropped her watch and didn’t respond to the German officers calling out to her.

 

Day 6 – Klatovy


Klatovy

We drove from Leipzig into Czech Republic to the small town of Klatovy, in western Bohemia.  Dan’s grandmother, Irma Hutter (Emma’s great-grandmother) was born here and it was wonderful to read her memoirs and to walk in her footsteps and imagine how the town might have changed in the intervening century.

 

We stayed in the wonderful Zamek Hradek – a newly restored chateau in the tiny village of Hradek, outside of Klatovy, and feasted on local delicacies, including smoked trout from a nearby river and Moravian wine.


Dan and Emma at the Jewish Cemetary

Stuck at the train tracks near Klatovy

 

 

 

 

 

Day 7 – Klatovy – Slavonice

 

We spent the morning looking for Hutters and Singers at the Jewish graveyard, quite hidden in the woods outside of Klatovy.  Then we dropped off Emma in Cesky Budejovice, home of the original Budweiser beer (no relation to the American brand, which apparently adopted the name in the late 19th century – before there were international copyright laws – because it was synonymous with good beer.)


The original Buds

Emma, who is studying to be a vet, went to stay with a Czech dairy veterinarian for a few days.  Dan and I drove to the tiny Rennaisance town of Slavonice.

 

Day 8 Slavonice – Telc

 

We took a long walk outside of Slavonice where we crossed the border briefly into Austria. There we saw an outdoor “museum” made of remnants of the Czech border fortifications, built between 1937 and 1938 to defend their border against the rising Nazi threat.  The fortifications consist of bunkers – some preserved in their original state – as well as barbed wire and other obstacles to guard against tanks.  Later, towards the ed of the war, the Germans used the system to defend against the Soviet advance.


WWII Bunkers – Slavonice

Moravia

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day 9 Telc – Mikulov

 

Telc well deserves its status as a UNESCO World Cultural site.  The town was founded in the 11th century, but had its greatest period of expansion in the 16th century under the rule of Zacharias of Hradek.  Zacharias was a humanist and promoted religious tolerance.  He traveled to Italy and brought back an Italian architect to transform the cold, dark baroque style castle he inherited into a showcase of Renaissance beauty and comfort.

 

The town has a lovely square surrounded with Renaissance houses and lively cafes.  It’s very evocative of Italy with far less tourism.

 

To quote the Lonely Planet guide on Telc: “Park yourself with a good book and a glass of Moravia wine at one of the cafes on the square and you’ll remember all over again just why you like to travel.”


Telc

 

From Telc, we drove through the Moravian countryside to the town of Mikulov, where there is a rich Jewish heritage.  The hotel we stayed in was in the former “ghetto.”  There was a designated area of town for Jews, however, many of them were prosperous merchants and tradespeople.  Most Jews in Czechoslovakia were either killed or emigrated during World War II.  As a point of reference, there were something like 300,000 Jews in the country prior to World War II, and the current population is maybe 1 percent of that.  A good read that gave us a little understanding of Czech history prior to our trip is Prague Winter by former Secretary of State Madeline Albright.   Albright’s father was a member of the Czech Government in exile during World War II and she weaves together the history with personal remembrances and reflections.

 

Mikulov also has the requisite castle, and we were fortunate to be able to hear a wonderful concert there by the Norwegian guitarist and lute player Rolf Lislevand.  Beautiful music in a beautiful setting – and the mood was only enhanced by the thunder storm brewing outside!


Rolf Liselvand

Day 10 Mikulov – Brno

 

We passed through the UNESCO cultural heritage sites of Lednice and Valtice which are large, impressive castles but lacking some of the grace of Telc (and overrun with tourists).

 

We made one more stop on the Ehrlich family trail in Kromeritz, where Dan’s paternal grandfather went to school, and arrived at the end of our Czech sojourn in the city of Brno.

 

Day 11 Brno – London

 

It was a very hot day and we were castled out (if that’s possible) so we took some advice from a New York Times article and instead went to see some of the minimalist architecture from the 20’s which abounds in the city – and which didn’t disappoint.


Josef Kranz’s Cafe Era

 

Later, we flew out of Brno airport on a cheap Ryanair flight to London en-route home.  This involved rushed packing and re-packing about three times because while the tickets for Ryan Air can be a real bargain, they try to squeeze around the edges.  Their weight limit for packed bags turns out to be about 30% less than normal airlines, their size limit for carry-ons is strict, and they were trying to charge us 150 euros to check the carry-on which they wouldn’t let us carry on! Be advised.

 

We spent one night in London where we had a fantastic Indian meal (a nice change from all those schnitzel and dumplings), and an unenventful trip back to Boston on the 4th of July.   All in all a memorable trip and hope to get back to that part of the world sometime!