European DeSpair, Day One: Hamburglar for a Day

June 28, 2014

I landed in Germany on June 28th and walked out to find my friend Susanne waiting for me with her vizsla Ben. "You can bring your dog into the airport here?" I asked. "Of course!" said Susanne. I soon found out that you can take your dog almost everywhere in Germany: in the restaurant, on trains, in shops. I guess this is what it's like to have a society that isn't run based upon the threat of lawsuits? We went back to her apartment and then went out to spend a day exploring Hamburg before we headed off to Berlin to meet up with Katsy the next day. Back in America, I once told Susanne that I worried that when I finally visited Europe, my brain might suffer an aneurysm from an overload of olden tyme awesomeness. She laughed and seemed skeptical, and as I walked around Hamburg, it suddenly dawned on me why: The Big One.  You know, Dubya Dubya Too! During World War II, Allied bombing reduced Germany's cities (and the majority of that Old Tyme Magic) to rubble.  Being a major industrial center and port city, Hamburg (Germany's second largest city) was particularly hard-hit.  The rather demonically named British Operation Gomorrah, which started on July 24, 1943, resulted in eight days and seven nights of bombing.  On July 27th, unusually dry and warm weather combined with the bombing to produce a deadly firestorm with temperatures estimated as high as 1830° F and 120-150 mph winds.  Tarmac melted and became a deadly trap to those trying to escape the searing hit. Here is a personal account of the firestorm by Henni Klank:
We came out into a thundering, blazing hell. The streets were burning, the trees were burning and the tops of them were bent right down to the street. Burning horses out of the Hertz hauling business ran past us, the air was burning, simply everything was burning. Again and again, we saw burning people suddenly start to run and soon after, to fall. There was no way to save them. My wife’s head began to burn. Her hair had caught fire. With the small amount of water I had in a bucket with me I was able to put out her burning hair. At the same time I cooled my hands and face. We wife complained, 'I can’t go on. My feet are burned. My hands.' We passed fused masses of people made up of four or five corpses, each probably a family, visible only as a pile of burned substance no larger than a small child. Around us were hundreds of people. All this happened in silence. The terrible heat had dried throats so much that no one could scream.
The word "firestorm" was actually created to describe this phenomenal disaster.  Eight square miles of Hamburg were destroyed, including 250,000 structures, and over 40,000 people were killed.  Many of the dead were found in air raid shelters; the firestorm above had consumed all oxygen.  (Graphic footage of the disaster can be seen here.) So with all this destruction in its history, it's not surprising that the majority of Hamburg doesn't fit the "Old World Beauty" concept.  But that's not to say it isn't a beautiful and fascinating city - it definitely is.  Just a post-war beautiful and fascinating city.  Especially for history buffs like moi.  Let me show you some of the lovely things I saw on my walk around the neighborhood! So much street art!  I thought Chicago had a vibrant street art scene but Hamburg puts it to shame.  And the anti-fascist stickers and graffiti made me especially happy. And the architecture that was spared from the bombings was quite exquisite too. But, of course, the things that interested me the most were the ones related to World War II or the Nazi regime.  And there were reminders of that awful time everywhere.  Some of the most poignant were markers on the sidewalks (stolperstein or "stumbling blocks") that memorialized people who once lived in the adjacent buildings, who were imprisoned by the Nazis. As you start to study the history of Nazi oppression, it becomes amazing to realize the sheer number of concentration camps they created.  Here, on these few stolperstein I stumbled upon during my walk we see references to Fühlsbüttel, Buchenwald, Neuengamme, Langenhorn and Minsk.  The amount of resources they must have used to organize these camps and carry out their nefarious goals is hard to believe.  Imagine if such resources were put towards something positive?  But hey, we're talking about Nazis here, so let's get back to the evil stuff. There are also some notable bomb shelters still visible around town. The biggest of these I didn't visit until the last day of my trip, so I'll cover that one later... but the most charming of them, is this lovely little thing that was renovated into a restaurant that has since closed.  Hopefully, it will be reopened by someone else soon because, dammit, I want to eat in a bomb shelter! Undoubtedly the most vivid reminder of the destruction of Hamburg during World War II is St. Nicholas' Church.  This gothic church was completed in 1876 and its 147.3 meter tall spire (completed in 1874) was actually the tallest structure in the world until 1876.  It was quite a sight to behold... especially for the Allied bombers who used it as a handy-dandy target during the war.  Amazingly, although the main section of the church was bombed to smithereens, the spire never fell - and was preserved as a grim reminder that electing fascists is never a good idea. Unfortunately, the spire is currently undergoing renovation so it's surrounded with scaffolding which makes it not particularly photogenic.  You can take an elevator up to the top of the spire, which of course we did, but again, not terrible photogenic because you can't really get close enough to the gargoyles to see them that well and all that scaffolding is in the way.  However, there is a nice display of photographs and history of the church and a great view of Hamburg up there, so it's worth it.  (We didn't go to the museum because I didn't realize there WAS a museum there, but apparently there is according to the official website.  Next time!) We had wanted to walk to St. Pauli to see the neighborhood there (kinda the hipster hood of Hamburg) and the big bomb shelter, but there was some sort of 1960s German Music Festival thingamajig going on and that entire area was overrun with extras from Austin Powers.  Bob was as appalled as we were! So we wandered about a bit more and stumbled across a prison - Holstenglacis Prison.  And what was most interesting about this prison was that there were people standing at the outside gates shouting up at the prisoners, having full conversations.  Can you imagine that happening at an American prison?  Nor can I...  Anyway, this prison (along with most every patch of ground you step upon in Germany) has a morbid history which is commemorated on a pair of plaques.  Back in the Nazi day it was called the "Investigative Custody Centre of the City of Hamburg" and it was the regional execution center, with a nice shiny permanently mounted guillotine in the execution room.  On November 10, 1943 three Catholic priests and an Evangelical-Lutheran pastor were beheaded here for speaking out against the Nazi war machine.  They came to be known as the Lübeck Martyrs, named for the city in which they lived. Additionally, there was a plaque commemorating two French resistance fighters who were also decapitated at Holstenglacis.  Oh, to be as brave as these people... So, that was pretty much the end of our fun-filled day one stroll.  We didn't want to overdo it because we had big day in Berlin planned for tomorrow.  I'll get to that soon, but for now, I'll leave you with a few more photos from my day in Hamburg.

Stay Tuned for Episode 3: Beelitz Blitz!

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