Friday, 23 April 2010


Finally we made it to Templin, a small town in the Uckermark district of Brandenburg.

click here for map to see where we got to

It is a charming town with a centre based around a pink and white Rathaus and a busy market square.

The centre sits on the top of a small hill and still has a mediaeval layout, encircled by a complete town wall:

Set into the wall are three gatetowers; Mühlentor (the Mill Gate):

Berliner Tor (the Berlin Gate):

And Shultor (the School Gate):

There is a small candy-box protestant church, the Marien Kirche.

But the oldest building in Templin is the St. Georgen-Kapelle, a Gothic dating back to the 14th Century with ribbed vaults and a Gothic carved altar. It was one of just a few structures that survived a devastating fire in 1735 (the other structures being the three gates I've just mentioned, the town walls, and a handful of buildings). After the fire, a town ordnance was put in place that all citizens must keep a wooden fire engine and a leather bucket in their house!

Anyway, it was particularly nice to see this chapel today because it is St George's day!

Here are a few more photos giving a feel for Templin town centre:

The writing on the last one, by the way, translates that 'Todays saver is tomorrows winner".

Templin seems like only a small town, but in terms of area it is actually the seventh largest town or city in Germany according to this table. Famous people associated with Templin include the former leader of the GDR (DDR) Walter Ulbricht (but only because he died at a government guest house near here), and our very own Angela Merkel, who grew up and went to school here.

Ravensbrück Concentration Camp

Today we caught a train up to Fürstenberg, which is about 70km north of Berlin, and cycled to Templin - a distance of about 40km.

We passed by the former Ravensbrück Nazi Concentration Camp for women, on the shores of Schwedtsee, and stopped to have a look around this National Mahn- und Gedenkstätte (site of memorial and remembrance).

It was a sunny day, and Schwedtsee lake sparkling blue. The tranquil resort town of Fürstenberg could be seen prettily on the opposite shore. An impressive Jugendherberge (Youth Hostel) of large Tyrolean lodges stood beside the entrance to Ravensbrück, promising youthful summertime adventures hiking through the forest and boating on the lake.

It was hard to believe that between 1939 and 1945 130,000 female prisoners passed through the Ravensbrück camp system, of whom only 40,000 survived. But it was so.

The site of the camp has many statues haunting this place where so many women prisoners were gassed, strangled, shot, experimented on, buried alive, or simply worked to death. The most poignant statue is of a colossal bronze women standing looking out across the lake. In her arms she carries a limp male figure, obviously dead. Her head is covered in mourning, her face gaunt and grim. Her legs are frozen in shuffling motion moving towards the lake. The statue, by sculptor Will Lammert, is called 'die Tragende', which in English means something like 'the carrying or bearing woman'.

Here it is in close-up:

The meaning will be to each person's individual interpretation, but to me there is a sad futility expressed here around a woman who carried and bore a son as a baby, now bearing him in his death. The man's body is almost foetal in its positioning, smaller than the woman's, and held to her belly. What is surprising to me is that this central memorial at a concentration camp for women seems to say more about a mother's grief at the loss of a son, rather than the death of her sisters. There are also echoes of La Pietà (the Virgin Mary cradling the dead body of Jesus) which again, doesn't seem appropriate in this context (which anyway, Käthe kollwitz did much better in the Neue Wache in Berlin).

Rather more appropriately symbolic, I think, are a pair of statues in front of the Wall of Nations beside a mass grave for three hundred prisoners:

It is also by Will Lammert and is titled 'Frauengruppe', or womens' group. The distortions of their proportions look almost grotesque - the long arms and distended neck, the large hands, the short legs, the pendulous breasts and wide hips, the shorn head - but these are deliberately not classical sculptures to idealised feminine beauty. They are more real in their exaggerated dimensions.

Interestingly they are on separate plinths and could be moved apart, but by bringing them together, in this place, they seem to express to me a comradeship forged in horrendously brutal conditions. A sisterhood in adversity. And indeed, 'Frauengruppe' is the name given to Feminist self-support and politicizing groups.

In direct opposition to the strength of these two women, is a statue that 'greets' you near the entrance:

Here the woman is emaciated, her face skull-like, her ribs visible, a shift hanging on her shoulders with no semblance of a female form beneath. And from sideways, the statue presents itself as almost two-dimensional.

Then there is the miniature girl clinging to the woman's match-stick legs. The child looks as though she is almost wetting herself with fear, and yet her mother doesn't notice, her own despair consuming her with resignation, with inaction.

This group is disturbing, but also somewhat pathetic in its passiveness. I prefer to contemplate on the strength of the Frauengruppe and Tragende rather than this symbol of hopelessness.

When imagery can't adequately convey the facts of this place, words will have to do. The many memorials are unambiguous, such as this one on a large rectangle of earth planted with Spring flowers:

Hier ruhen die sterblichen Überreste hunderter ermordeter frauen und kinder aus über 20 Ländern Europas
This translates in English as:
Here lie the mortal remains of hundreds of murdered women and children from over twenty European countries.
Behind here is the so-called Wall of Nations - Mauer der Nationen - with individual memorials to the dead from each country. This included a memorial for Great Britain, and I was curious how women from the UK had ended up here. The plaque provides an explanation:

The inscription reads:






So, they were all members of the UK's Special Operations Executive. That is, engaged in the support of resistance movements, sabotage, and espionage in Nazi occupied Europe. In particular, they were assigned to F Section, which sent agents into enemy France. F Section sent 39 female agents into the field, of whom 13 did not return. This memorial marks the resting place of four of them.

If you are interested, you can find out more about these brave women on Wikipedia:
Other countries lost far more of their daughters to Ravensbrück. One memorial remembers the French women and children deported there:

There is thankfully very little left of the buildings that once stood here: this is a memorial site after all, not a Ravensbrück Experience Theme Park. What remains is enough; a cell block in which the women were incarcerated:

And, most shockingly of all, the ovens of the crematorium:

Ravensbrück was liberated by the Red Army on 30th April 1945. As the Soviet Army approached, the camp guards began the extermination of as many prisoners as they could in order not to leave anyone behind who could testify to what had taken place there. When the SS couldn't murder the women fast enough, they sent the remaining 20,000 prisoners bare-footed on a death-march toward northern Mecklenburg. They were eventually liberated by a Russian scout unit that caught up with them.

A memorial to the liberators, in the form of a Soviet tank still freshly bedecked to this day with grateful flowers, stands at the approach to Ravensbrück:

We carried on with our bike ride rather more soberly, and a bit more thoughtfully, but glad for the sun on our face and the freedom to cycle where we wished.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Cloisters, Storks, and Canals in the Sky

Today we went for a cycle-ride in NE Brandenburg, through the wonderful Biosphärenreservat (UNESCO Biosphere Reserve) of Schorfheide-Chorin near to the Polish border.

We started at Chorin, after a short Regional Train journey from Bernau (on the Berlin S2 line), and soon followed the cycle path through a charming village to the wooded shores of the nearby Amtssee. We had bought a monthly Fahrradkarte (bike ticket) for taking our bikes on the train, but if you haven't got a bike, we noticed that there was a large bike hire place at Chorin station that has a wide selection, including a Trampelbus - a bike-bus for twelve people to pedal at once, or even a six-seater electric 'Safari' car! Price-list for bike hire at Chorin Bahnhof.

Apart from being a pleasant village that wouldn't have seemed out of place in the English Cotswold, Chorin is famous for its Cistercian monastery, and it is this we found on the edge of the Amtssee.

Having been used to visiting English monasteries - that is, piles of masonry, collapsed aisles, and the foundations of buildings that used to be there - it is always something of a surprise to find German abbeys in such good condition. This isn't wholly just because King Henry VIII's vandals didn't get their hands on them and strip them to their foundations. Germany also had its own Protestant Reformation and dissolution of the monasteries (in Chorin's case, in 1542), and they also had the terrible Thirty Years' War that left Brandenburg (and most of Europe) a deserted, plundered, battle-field.

No, Kloster Chorin did indeed become a picturesque ruin haunted by wistful Romantic artists, but it was saved (as many other ecclesiastical buildings in Berlin and Brandenburg were) by the architect and state planner Karl Friedrich Schinkel, who had the church and monastery at least partially reconstructed in the nineteenth century. Anyway, the abbey looks magnificent with its Mediaeval red-brick Gothic and lake-side woodland setting. We wouldn't mind having a look around, but we had only just started our bike-ride!

Our next stop was Brodowin, but to reach it we had to cycle along the 5km long Denglerweg, a cobbled path through forest. Riding on uneven cobbles for that distance was not much fun, and our legs and behinds were soon complaining! Half-way along though was a good sandwich stop by the Dengler Stone ('Denglerstein').

Denglerweg? Denglerstein? Who is this Dengler then? Luckily there is a cast bronze portrait of the man himself on the stone, and a plaque informing us that Dr Dr Alfred Dengler (1874 - 1944) was head of the main Forestry school in Eberswalde and author of the walk and handbook 'Waldbau auf ökologischer Grunlage' - or 'Forestry based on ecological principles'. So now you know!

Finally we got out of the forest and into a landscape of rolling, ice-age formed hills in which nestled the rural community of Brodowin. There to greet us were a pair of majestic white storks nesting high on a specially erected platform above the village green. One of the storks soared off into the blue sky on enormous, outstretched wings, but its mate stayed behind and allowed me to photograph her:

The local news at the moment is full of stories about a blue stork nesting in Biegen, which is SE of Berlin on the road out to Frankfurt Oder. Nobody knows how it got to be blue, but if it's a Berliner punk stork it might be the result of a feather-dye gone wrong.

From Brodowin we carried on East, passing glacier boulder-lined fields and sparkling blue lakes. And then, a big suprise, a real hill! With steep sides and a proper peak and everything. This was the Rummelsberg, and admittedly it was only 81 metres high, but it did offer a wonderful panorama of the surrounding countryside.

And there's Brodowin church steeple again in the distance, but no sign of the storks.

Strangely (having not seen a soul for miles), whilst we were admiring the view, half a dozen young men appeared over the brow and joined us on the Rummelsberg peak. When we climbed back to the bottom we saw that they had hired one of the Safari electric cars from Chorin train-station. We wondered if they had driven that over the same cobble-stoned forest path we had taken, and hoped it had good suspension if they had.

Not far from here we came to Pehlitzwerder, which seemed to be not more than a camp-site on the SW shore of the lake Parsteiner See. There did used to be another Cistercian monastery here at one time, Kloster Mariensee - or The Lake of The Virign Mary - but if there is anything left there now it is hidden under a caravan. Down by the lake, the waters were crystal-clear and the most unbelievable blue.

It was interesting to see that by the edge of the road around the Partseiner See there were barriers to stop migrating toads crawling onto the road, and tunnels under the road for them. We used to spend many an early Spring evening in Derbyshire with a bucket and a torch helping toads across the road, and here there was protection specially for them!

After refreshments (Pflaumekuchen mit Sahne!) at another campsite on the Eastern edge of the Parsteiner See, we joined the busy L29 (a proper road. With tarmac!) and headed south for Oderberg. This was a busy market-town, and as you might gather by its name it is on the river Oder, and hence close to the Polish border. We had no time to look around and headed along the old course of the Oder (diverting around the Teufelsberg - Devil's hill) towards our final destination, the Niederfinow boat lift.

This truly is an amazing piece of engineering. The lift is 60m high and raises a trough containing a section of the Oder-Havel canal, with boats of course, up to the rest of the canal on the plateau above that stretches as far as The Netherlands. Opened in 1914, it is Germany's oldest working boat lift. And it is still working; whilst we were there it took a barge up in about five minutes.

For the modest price of a euro, you can climb the path up the hillside to the top and walk along the canal-side to the dizzying heights at the top of the lift.

After gawping at the sheer scale of the boat lift, we cycled to the small station at Struwenberg and caught the train home.

Amazingly, because of the increase in traffic on the Oder-Havel canal, they are building another boat lift right next to the existing one, and this one will be even bigger. That should be ready in 2012, and will be something to see.

A great day out, and about 35km of cycling (though it felt like more after all the cobbles).

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Frohe Ostern!

Happy Easter everybody!

This year we didn't want to feel like the only house on the street that didn't have an 'Osterstrauch', so we decorated a pussy-willow bush in the garden with colourful eggs!

Next year we'll probably have gone all the way and have a five-foot tall straw Easter Bunny on the front lawn (also seen this year).

Or maybe not.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Einstein A Go Go!

The sleepy village of Caputh lies between the lakes Schwielowsee and Templinersee, both on the River Havel, about 6km SW of Potsdam. We visited it on a sunny Good Friday (Karfreitag in German) using a combination of S-Bahn and red Regional trains; it is just inside zone C on the Berlin transport network, about as far as you can go for the price of a ticket from our home in Basdorf.

The Bahnhof is shared with Geltow, Caputh's poorer cousin, and to reach Caputh itself you either have to take a cable ferry the short distance to the other side, or walk a twenty minute detour down the river bank and across a railway bridge. We took the ferry - it's only fifty cents per person and runs back-and-forth continuously. The current ferry boat is called Tussy II, and apparently the ferry has been running this trip since 1853. It would be no big enterprise to replace it with a bridge, but thankfully this quaint operation is still running. Oh, and yes, that is a bush with eggs planted on top of the cabin - it is Easter after all!

If you are in a car then you are forced to take the ferry or suffer a much longer detour. For some reason, there were half a dozen Ferraris waiting to cross from Caputh.

Caputh didn't seem a Ferrari type of place, except that you probably need a bit of money to afford a lakeside villa and mooring rites for your yacht.

There were plenty of people out on The Havel this Good Friday holiday; I particularly liked the name of this one - 'Be Cool !'

And Caputh is a pretty laid back, leisurely kind of place. A large proportion of the houses are for rent during the holiday season. And in fact one famous resident lived here with his wife, in a house he had built himself, every summer between 1929 and 1932. That person was Albert Einstein, taking a break from his duties as head of the newly founded Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institute of Physics in Berlin, and working on his Unified Field Theory. (The rest of the year they spent in their city flat in Berlin in Haberlandstrasse 5) .

We were going to visit his house (signposted das Einsteinhaus - natch!) but first we walked through idyllic Caputh, as his Summer house lay on the edge of the village, up by the tree-line.

There are some colourful houses in Caputh to look at; this is a writer's workshop:

By the way, the chalked inscription above the door, 20+C+M+B+10, isn't some arcane formula from nuclear physiscs. It is something you often see in Catholic parts of Germany, and was chalked there on Epiphany by wandering kids pretending to be the three wise men. So you have the year at either end, and the initials of said Eastern Soothsayers: Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar (C+M+B). Or, you also have the abbreviation of the Latin phrase 'Christus mansionem benedicat', may Christ Bless the House. Neat huh? Except it is unlucky to clean it off your door-mantle all year, and you also have to give the kids presents instead of the other way around.

Other houses look like the renovation-work has only been half-completed:

Whilst others are just plain weird:

Well, it makes a change from having a plastic gnome in the garden I suppose.

The grandest building though is the inevitable Schloss:

Built in 1621, it was presented in 1671 to his second wife Dorothea by the Great Elector of Brandenburg, Friedrich Wilhelm, who got the builders and decorators in, and made the house into a prestigious and sumptuous Summer residence. Friedrich I, King in Prussia, also enjoyed Summer retreats here, and so no doubt did many other Friedrichs and Wilhelms after him.

More resonant in my mind for previous residents is a pre-fabricated wooden house, built to a simple Bauhaus design (one of the earliest) a short way up a hill above Caputh, overlooking the lake Templinersee. It was here that Einstein, his wife Elsa, and many visitors including prominent cutting-edge physicists, spent three idyllic summers.

Here is a view of the house from the road:

And a side view of the house:

Einstein might have spent many more Summers there, but of course a certain Herr H and his anti-Semitic NSDAP party seized absolute control of Germany in January 1933. On March 20th the Nazis searched Einstein's summer house for an alleged cache of Communist party weapons. On April 1st a national boycott of Jewish-owned businesses was declared. In mid-April Einstein's Berlin flat was searched by the Nazis. On 10th of May on Babelplatz in Berlin, a mass book burning ceremony of works containing 'un-German' thoughts was held by members of the S.A. ("brownshirts") and Nazi youth groups, on the instigation of the Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels. Einstein's works were amongst those burnt. He had spent the Winter in Pasadena, California with his wife, and it was from there that he declared on 10th March 1933:
"As long as it is possible for me I only will stay in a country in which political freedom, tolerance and equality of all citizens are stated in the law. (…) These conditions are nowadays not fulfilled in Germany."
Einstein renounced his German citizenship, and never set foot on German soil again. In July 1933 his German properties and remaining finances and possessions were seized by the Nazis, including the summer house.

Poignantly, the house was for a while used to accommodate children from the neighbouring Jewish school and orphanage. The progressive teacher who operated the children's home, Gertrude Feiertag, was to die in Auschwitz in 1943. Today the children's home has been renamed after Ann Frank.

So, we had lots to think about as we made our way back to Caputh-Geltow station (this time over the railway/foot bridge) and the journey home (the long way round via Schönefeld airport). A very enjoyable day, with lots of potential for future exploration, especially if we take our bikes.

p.s. For those who know a bit of German, yes Caputh is indeed pronounced the same way as 'kaputt', but it wasn't at all broken or washed out!