Tag Archives: BGTW

Naked Mouse…

It is a crisp cold day and the sun is glistening off fields blanketed with fallen snow.   About an hour’s drive from Weimar, and after a sodden winter in the UK, it is magical traveling under piercing blue skies with stinging, fresh air hurting my lungs.  This pain is good.

Pony in field near Mittelpunkt - the centre of Germany
Pony in field near Mittelpunkt – the centre of Germany

We are on our way to an ancient Thüringen forest in Central Germany – between Mühlhausen, Bad Langensalza and the Wartburg city of Eisenach.  It was a Soviet military base in the not so distant past.  After WWII, Stalin’s Red Army gained control of Eastern Germany which became the German Democratic Republic.  This enormous beech tree forest, and its peripheries, were used for military exercises with barracks and administrative buildings scattered around its perimeter.

It was a ‘no-go zone’ for anyone other than the Russian army.

This 7,500 hectare forest is now the Hainich Nature Park.  It is probably as near to primeval forest as you can find in Europe and, when it became a nature park in 1996, had not been impacted by humans for fifty years.  This has allowed nature to return and flourish.

Middle spotted woodpecker ©nationalpark-hainich
Middle spotted woodpecker ©nationalpark-hainich

Not only is there dominant beech trees but also 30 other species of deciduous trees all competing for their place in the forest.  49 species of mammals including wild cats, middle spotted woodpeckers and 15 types of bats reside here.

Hainich Nature Park, Germany
Hainich Nature Park, Germany
Crystal encrusted tree with blue sky as backdrop
Crystal encrusted tree with blue sky as backdrop
Naked Mouse - food for the Wild Cats
Naked Mouse – Food for the Wild Cats
Wildcat at Wildcat Village, Hainich Nature Park
Wildcat, Hainich Nature Park

But the piece de resistance in Hainich Nature Park is the remarkable Canopy Walk.  The top of the Canopy Walk Tower is 42m high and the vista extends for miles and miles.  We are very lucky as the park’s director, Manfred Großmann and his team have opened the attraction for us to experience.  At every level, as you walk up, there are ‘arms’ of walkways that extend out into the forest.  In the winter, with the entire forest covered in snow and ice crystals, it is inspirational.  The views…stunning.

We also visited the Wild Cat Village in Hütscheroda which opened in April 2012.  This centre is so popular, particularly with domestic tourists, that there have been 55,000 visitors in 2 years. The information centre offers brochures, a cinema and also features exhibits.  It is also associated with an ambitious project to create ‘Green Corridors’ that connect forests in Germany and even other countries so wild creatures have more freedom to roam.

Wildcat exhibit at Wildcat Village Information Centre
Wildcat exhibit at Wildcat Village Information Centre

The enclosure for the captive wild cats (about 1/4 mile walk from the information centre) houses four males: Toco and Carlo from Germany and Franz and Tosca from Switzerland.  As these cats are being fed, they can never be returned to the wild.  The keeper skins the mice to make it easier for the cats to eat, thus coining the term ‘Naked Mouse’.

In the afternoon, I was thrilled to visit a very old medieval walled city.  Mühlhausen is famous for its two market squares, each with imposing churches – St. Blaise (Divi Blasii) and St. Mary’s.  Mühlhausen was also famous for being the epicentre of the Peasant Uprising of 1523 – 1525.  Supported by Martin Luther’s right hand man, Thomas Müntzer, a resident of Mühlhausen, many of the peasant’s demands were ideologically similar with changes coming about with respect of the Reformation.

Walled Medieval Town of Mühlhausen
Walled Medieval Town of Mühlhausen

Our group enjoyed an impromptu organ concert given by the organist of St. Blaise on an instrument inspired by the one played by J.S. Bach in this very church.  It was unfortunate that we each had to be given a blanket to cope with the perishing and bitter cold.  Even as the sun slipped away, and the temperature dropped, it was a fascinating place to visit.

It was a visit to the town’s City Hall, built circa 1300, that was quite breath-taking.  Steeped in history, there is a late Gothic mural depicting the town’s first council that is captivating.  The archives, in the basement of the building since 1615, have daily correspondence of the city starting from 1382.  The oldest book written in German, a law book from 1213, is housed here in the archives.

To organise an English speaking tour guide for Hainach Nature Park, email: np@Hainich@forest.thueringen.de or service@thueringen-tourismus.de

Visit www.visit-thuringia.com for general information.

All images ©The Roaming Scribe unless stated


Arbeit Macht Frei – Work Will Make You Free

It is with unease that I am on a trip to see the former concentration camp of Auschwitz, particularly as it is unplanned and unexpected.  Am I completely sure that this is something I want to do?

During my childhood my mother and father spoke incessantly about WWII as they had lived through it in Britain; but they never spoke of the Holocaust, insisting that not one of them knew what was going on.

Auschwitz is now a museum intent on preserving the authenticity of the original camp.  But it is also a gravesite and place to pay respect to those who lost their lives.  The infamous internment centre would eventually turn from a prison for Polish detainees into the place which was the answer to the Third Reich’s ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Question’, an extermination machine on a scale hitherto unknown.

On route, the landscape is snowy, bleak…even lifeless; cement buildings, white fields, leafless trees and grey skies possibly matching my frame of mind. ‘Eerie’ and ‘forelorn’ are words that can’t describe it.

Pawel Sawicki, press officer and my guide

We arrive and our guide lays out the mechanics of tours here, explaining that information and the ‘tone’ of a tour of Auschwitz is tailored to each individual group.   Taking into account age, ethnicity, and nationality; only when this information is obtained will it decided how much can be told to individuals about what took place here.

Across the entrance to the complex is the iron sign that reads ‘Arbeit macht frei’ (Work makes you Free) which has come to represent something the Nazis will always be remembered for, incessant and twisted propaganda.  I walk through the double row of barbed wire fences accompanied by an increasing sense of dread.

Auschwitz was created on the site of a former Polish army barracks in June 1940 and at the beginning was a camp for Polish political prisoners. Only in autumn 1941 did Soviet POWs start to be deported here and they were placed in nine blocks of the original camp.

I find the exhibits, which are housed in two blocks, extremely moving: luggage with names and addresses written on them, prosthetic limbs (truly sad because these people would have never survived past their first day as they were not able to work), kitchen utensils (Jews had been told they were being  ‘re-located’), baby clothes and one truly horrendous exhibit.  An enormous glassed off section along the side of a hall is filled with women’s hair removed when the person had died. It is decaying, naturally, in a hermetically sealed environment.  It is the enormous amount of hair that is disturbing as it brings home the sheer numbers involved.  Hair was apparently even woven into fabric, for what use I do not want to contemplate.

Outside of the prison are SS buildings and accommodation.  A pub, a hospital and also a crematorium that is preserved purely because it was used by the SS as an air raid shelter.  It is thought that 70,000 corpses were disposed of here.

There is also the gallows where the first Commandant, Rudolf Höß, was hanged after being convicted of his war crimes.  Is it inappropriate that I feel a small sense of elation and gratitude that at least someone paid for these crimes?  Probably.  Soon there will be more information about the perpertrators included in the exhibits at Auschwitz.

We then travelled in a coach the 40 km2 of no man’s land that lie between Auschwitz and Birkenau, the extermination camp.  Seeing Birkenau is another experience completely as it is here the killing took place on an industrial scale.

Birkenau was opened sometime in spring 1942 and extermination started that same year even as the camp was still being expanded.  By early 1943 four large crematoria and gas chambers were opened.   May, June and July 1944 was the time when the mass extermination of Jews deported from Hungary took place.

Railroad car in Birkenau with Jewish men laying commemorative stones

As I enter the grounds, the snow masks the marshy grounds of this 72 acre site.  Dozens of barracks are still extant but it is the lone railway car sitting on the tracks that grabs my attention.  There are a group of Jewish men in black clothing laying stones on a protruding piece of metal in commemoration.  The tenderness of the act brings tears to my eyes.  It is a mute and humble memorial to the innocent victims who lost their lives.

As there are three main railway lines converging outside of Oswiecim, it was quite easy to lay tracks from the main lines, through the camp and straight to the gas chambers.  None of these deportees would have known what awaited them.

Doctors would be ready for the trains of Hungarian Jews to arrive and, on disembarkation, these men would separate the arrivals into two groups.  Those healthy enough to work… and those not.  The fate of those sent to be gassed is almost too horrific to discuss.

Ultimately, the number of victims was estimated to be one million Jews, 70 -75 thousand Poles (non-Jewish), 21 thousand Sinti and Romani gypsies, 15 thousand Soviet POW and around 10-15 thousand others.

This is thought to be the largest mass killing site in the world.

1.43 million visitors come here every year, the majority of which are young people.