The big news today is that it’s been 75 years since Nazi Germany formally accepted surrender against the Allied Forces, marking the end of World War II in Europe. During vacation in 2017, we were exposed to ghosts of the past while visiting Hungary, Germany, Austria, Czech Republic, and Poland. I will dive into our overall experiences in those countries at a later time. For now, I want to commemorate the anniversary by sharing some of what we saw and learned during our travels.
Originally being from the Cincinnati, Ohio area, where there’s a strong German heritage, one of my favorite places to grab a beer has always been Hofbrauhas Newport. Growing up with the lively culture, costumes, Maypoles, and polka all seeming a little bit weird, I eventually developed an appreciation for the traditional festivities and the German part of my ancestry. At some point, the original Hofbrauhaus restaurant and bierhaus in Munich worked its way onto my bucket list, so that played some part into our travel plans for Germany.
Hofbrauhaus am Platzl in Munich was founded in 1589 by the Duke of Bavaria. Since then, some very notable visitors have included Vladimir Lenin (reportedly), Mikhail Gorbachev, John F. Kennedy, and George H. W. Bush. In 1920, during a time of political turmoil in Germany, a meeting involving Social Democrats, Communists, and Nazis ended up in a violent melee while Adolf Hitler spoke in the Festaal (“festival hall”) room on the third floor. That 700 seat room, among others in the vicinity, was destroyed during World War II and renovated in 1958. Here is a look at that same spot today:
The Hofbrauhaus Munchen Festall (aka Festival Hall) interior is shown, with patrons and a band playing near the back of the room during the day.
Salzburg, Austria is the land of “The Sound of Music,” which was set during World War II. Not far from that small, lovely city – across the border in Germany and way up in the mountains – is a chalet called Kehlsteinhaus. The English name, Eagle’s Nest, purportedly came from a visit by Mussolini, during which he asked his driver “Where are we going?” The driver pointed up toward the mountains, and Mussolini responded “We’re going up to that eagle’s nest?”
Feeling the energy of places like this is interesting. Thinking about who visited and what might have been planned and coordinated within these same walls is unnerving. Yet, the history is important and hopefully influences our future decisions.
At Kehlsteinhaus, custom tour buses take you up and up the mountain. Upon arriving at the bus parking lot, a guide gives you some background information, and the group walks down a long, narrow tunnel built into the side of the mountain. At the end is a nicely-preserved bronze and mirrors elevator, which takes you straight up into the chalet.
Wandering through the building, the grand, impressive centerpiece is a marble fireplace. Allied soldiers carved their names into it and broke off chunks as mementos after taking over this part of the country.
The view is part of why we visited the Kehlsteinhaus. Lush, green hills and valleys make for a commanding view, and it’s literally the most beautiful scenic landscape I have ever seen.
Berchtesgaden, Germany – June 20, 2017: Hitler’s Kehlsteinhaus (aka Eagle’s Nest) chalet retreat in southeast Germany is shown in a panoramic view.
Budapest, Hungary initially felt a little removed from the history of WWII, but that’s only because I hadn’t done enough research beforehand. Walking along the east side of the Danube River, we happened upon a sculpture called “Shoes on the Danube Bank” by film director Can Togay. Right away, seeing a long stretch of metal shoes along the riverbank, we knew there was some sort of deep and powerful connotation. Learning those shoes represented thousands of people murdered by the fascist Arrow Cross group during the war was gut wrenching. Victims, many of which were Jewish, were ordered to take off their shoes, then were executed, with their bodies falling into the river and being carried away by the river current.
Budapest, Hungary – June 15, 2017: Iron shoes on the east bank of the Danube River memoralize Jews murdered by members of the fascist Arrow Cross group during World War II. Victims were ordered to remove their shoes, then were executed at the riverside, with the river carrying their bodies away.
Finally, Auschwitz. It’s one of the most bizarre, depressing, confusing places I have ever visited. Imagining fighting back while watching a depiction like “Schindler’s List” or “The Pianist” is likely normal, but religious persecution in the modern era must have seemed so far-fetched. In many countries, Jews were moved to ghettos, then work camps. Unsuspectingly, some were then poisoned in large groups during their weekly “showers.” Honestly, after my visit within the barbed wire and electric fences, I had wondered if any of the Auschwitz gas chambers were still intact, although we had walked through one, and my mental acuity to realize that just wasn’t there at the time.
Auschwitz, Poland – June 27, 2017: A reconstruction of the “death wall” execution site in block 11 of the World War II-era concentration and extermination camp is shown.
We headed to the Wieliczka Salt Mine after this, and the van’s occupants were completely silent during the ride. We were all mentally exhausted, as well as physically worn out from the summer sun, but everyone understood the reality… and everyone sat in quiet reflection, paying respect to the history.
Until we meet again…
"Commemorating the 75th Anniversary of Victory in Europe (VE) Day"
Written by: Justin Kilmer, Edited by: Janine Kilmer
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