Sonia travels with Mom to Germany!
Germany photographs! | 1997 photographs! | back to Family photo page...


Well, I'm back from Germany, a scenic, refreshing, memorable trip that I made with my mom who hadn't seen her homeland for 48 years. It was kinda beautiful and eerie to walk streets and see houses which she had known during childhood, and she told me a lot of heavy stuff that made me sad for what people (and she in particular) had to go through, but proud of her for how she got through it. That's the short version (see photos.) Below are more details...

We flew into Frankfurt, rented a car and drove north about an hour to Braunfels, a little town with Roman-era ruins of an old castle on a hill. There she saw her friend K., with whom she had gone to nursing school and hadn't seen for over 50 years. It was a treat to see those two laughing in a joyous embrace, and we spent the next day or so hanging out and catching up with K.'s family (husband, and older daughter who lives next door with spouse and daughter of her own). At night, we stayed in little hotel appropriately named "Himmelreich" (Heavenly Realm) and partook in the mornings of rich bread, pastries, fruit and cheese.

Then we drove south towards Heidelberg, near where K.'s younger biologist daughter A. lives with her radiologist husband and two small daughters (3 and 6). Being around children is usually terrifying for me (and this was no exception), but I had a great time with these mischievous, emotionally carefree little girls who accompanied us as we roamed around a picturesque region of ancient castles, quaintly cobblestone-lined old towns, and quiet garden and forest walking paths. We enjoyed one night out at a restaurant and one with homemade food, and had some wonderful talks over coffee, rich dark bread, and quark (a rich yogurt the consistency of sour creme) before setting out south on the main leg of our journey.

Freiburg is near the French border, and my mother remembers how it was occupied by the Allies and how the 360 foot-high, 700-year old church had been damaged (the 300 stairs of which we later climbed for an awesome view), and she expressed some of the devastation of war-- the starvation, loss, invasion, and displacement, and how her heart longs that this country she still loves very much will never again plunge itself into such hell. We stayed about 30 minutes way up a mountain in Hoellental, where train tracks wind their way through tunnels blasted through thick granite, and thick forests alternate with patches of meadow. She remembered parts of that road from childhood, and once we got to the hotel and saw how scenic and restful the environment was, she booked several extra nights there.

We spent the next week in leisurely, scenic wandering through the Black Forest territory in various towns in which her family had lived and/or traveled. One place was Endingen, a quaint city surrounded by rich vineyards and other crop-bearing fields, and when we stopped into a Bakeri-Conditeri (bakery-confectionary) for coffee, fresh plum-cake, and rich ice-cream, it looked familiar to her and she discovered that the shop had indeed been there, several remodelings ago, when she was a child. Then we walked up the old cobblestone street towards the landmark church she remembered (though never having gone in since neither of her parents were remotely Christian) and a wave of recognition came over her as she recalled the very building where they had lived, over which her father had parked the family car.

We then struck out east towards Spaichingen, the last town her family had lived before they were forever separated by war and death. It was a couple of hours before sunset when we got there, and my mom remarked how much the still-lovely town had grown. But nothing looked familiar. She had a vague picture in her mind of a school at the bottom of the hill where they'd lived, above which there was a railway station, but no amount of driving through the streets sparked any memories for her, and we ended by going to another town at the top of a little hill where we could enjoy a breathtaking view. It was 10pm by the time we got "home" to the hotel, and before retiring to bed we enjoyed some German news and commentaries. Though my vocabulary is dreadful, all my high-school German of 20 years ago had returned to me by that time, as I was dreaming in the language from the very first night and thus could follow the gist of things. Indeed this added to my enjoyment of being among my ancestors' people and culture.

At this point it is important to mention that a friend had received a word for me while I was being prayed for at the front of the church by the congregation. He had said that the word had to do with "Trains" but that it wasn't necessarily related to any rides that we were going to take (as indeed we traveled by rental car the whole time). But it was somehow relevant to the history that would be meaningful while my mother and I were on this trip. So I simply tucked that word in my heart, looking forward to discovering what would come of it.

As before, we took our time to relish the scenery and people, and that Sunday morning after visiting a wonderful little evangelical church in Freiburg, we decided to take a trip to one of the many Badens, hot-spring mineral "baths" that were used (and still are used) for recovery from a variety of musculo-skeletal and other illnesses, kind of like the hot-spring spas in our country. It was a beautiful day, perfect for enjoying a long walk before afternoon coffee, and we ascended to the ruins of an ancient fortress, retreating (because it was hot) to the quietness of a little forest, where a bench waited by the side of the walk-path. There my mom said that she had some things to explain to me, and I knew it was going to be heavy-duty. It was then that I had the great honour and agony of hearing some details about things which had happened during her childhood which she hadn't even shared except in the most sketchy of ways with my quite compassionate and understanding father. Just when I thought she'd shared something most devastating (and being most careful out of respect to not show too much emotion) she shared yet more. The upshot, which I expressed to her with conviction, was that I was so very proud of her for the courage and integrity she had exercised throughout that terrible time, and that God had most certainly poured out His strength and grace, and that this was a gift to me precious beyond all measure. I know that she was profoundly blessed not only in being able to speak her history at last to another human being, but in knowing that it was not a burden but rather an inspiration and treasured inheritance for me. Then, having descended the hill and partaken of more wonderful coffee and treats, we continued to enjoy scenery on the way back.

By this time (a day's ripening), a fragment of memory from Spaichingen had returned to her, and she recalled the name of one street near where she had lived. I was very excited and suggested we return, look it up, and see what happened, so on the next day that's what we did. First we enjoyed our afternoon infusion of wonderful coffee (Kaffee), plum-cake (Pflaumenkuchen), and ice-cream (Eis) while I looked up this "Bahnhofstrasse" on the map. Seeing that it was within a block of the Cafe, we set off on foot, up a small hill. As we rounded the first corner, my mom said that the building on the right looked kind of familiar. As we looked closer, we saw that it was a school, but at first she thought it too new because of the inscription which ended with "95". But the beginning of the inscription was "18", and as we walked past it, more buildings began to look familiar to her, particularly the old duplex apartments on the left. As we walked up, she was pointing into the yard, saying that's where her mother had hung the laundry, and that's when we saw the nameplate on the front of the building, with the name of the landlords from whom her parents had originally rented! It was an eerie feeling to be looking at a building and a backyard in which my mother had walked as a child. We looked a bit longer until she became uncomfortable at the curious neighbors wondering what we were doing, and besides, she also really wanted to see what was at the top of the hill.

Just as she remembered, there was the railway station, with a few trains standing about, and she walked around in wonder and recognition, me clicking memorable photographs the whole time. Only later did the full significance hit me, for "Bahnhofstrasse" means "Train Station Street", a fact I remembered with awe (and shared with my mom to her joy) while driving back to the hotel in the dark. For the rest of the afternoon, we walked down other streets of the town, passing by what she remembered to be the location of the hospital where she'd undergone an appendectomy, but where now only a small factory stood, and which she wasn't sure it was the same location. But being that we'd driven by the District Hospital during our previous visit, I wondered aloud if this really had been the town hospital, abandoned for that use since there was clearly no space for that facility to expand as the town grew, so why wouldn't they turn it over to some other use and just start afresh in another location. Though she doubted that any of her family was still alive, I wanted to make sure, so we walked through the cemetery and, after stopping in for some pleasant gift-shopping and conversation with a friendly storekeeper, we searched through a directory in a public phone booth before starting back.

The next couple of days we continued to wander through the countryside of the Black Forest, stopping at various small towns and spending half a day in Freiburg proper. Then we set out on the last leg of our journey north to the vicinity of Bonn and Cologne (Koeln)-- that evening settling in a hotel in Solingen, a sprawling industrial town where she had done some of her Nurses' training. Taking a long walk, I was struck by the contrast with the clean, painstakingly maintained towns we had seen up to that point. The buildings were relatively run-down and the streets were not spotless. European Commonwealth ("no thanks") and anti-drug ("stay clean") posters addressed the concerns of the relatively disadvantaged. As we walked along a stretch of tracks on the U-Bahn (above-ground railway), we saw lengthy stretches of vividly colorful bohemian-socialist graffiti, full of intertwined 3-dimensional perspective lettering and abstract psychological symbolism, and my mom said it was very reminiscent of socialist art of the forties. It was sobering but fascinating to see a different aspect of Germany-- it afforded a more complete experience of this wonderful country and people.

One entire day we spent in Koeln, a major city which had been over 90% destroyed in the war. Though some architectural patchiness was evident from the hasty rebuilding, the city overall was clean, attractive, and full of vitality. We went inside the richly and intricately adorned 560-foot cathedral, which my mom remembered being cordoned off in the late 40's for fear of falling structures. Unlike Freiburg, this Muenster was still undergoing repairs, but much had been accomplished already, and the 506-step climb afforded yet another awesome view. We found a wonderful vegetarian-salad restaurant and did some assorted shopping and wandering, followed by more of the rich German ice cream that was fast becoming a necessity for me.

That evening we headed back to Solingen to search for the hospital. Because of the unusual layout (to me vaguely reminiscent of a nascent New York as perhaps mistakenly I would imagine it before the district section "spider-legs" thickened and merged together) it was then that we realized how very sprawling this city was, and how fortunately some sections are thriving and growing. Though the signs were sketchy (due to ongoing construction), we found the "Krankenhaus" facility in a residential area, and she remembered early one morning venturing, out of curiosity, to investigate the source of a wheeled "cart" she kept hearing around 5am each morning, and discovering it was a worker collecting the bodies of people who had died during the night, some perhaps while walking on the road (as many German citizens were starving during those terrible years). Among the widened streets and new front entrance, my mom was still able to make out traces of the old facility, which was wonderful to see side by side with the new construction, currently (as announced in an outdoor sign listing all the contractors) beginning its "second phase" of expansion. By the time we headed back, it was already dark.

Our last full day was somewhat of a whirlwind (but curiously unhurried) tour through Bonn, the capital where we only spent an hour or so, concentrating on a quiet section where we could get a nice view of the Rhein river and surrounding neighborhoods, nearby of which was reported to be a museum dedicated to Beethoven (among my top five favorite composers). But the museum was, well, unsightly and disappointing, so we settled for photographing an outdoor layered-concrete sculpture of his face, and since we'd more or less reached our quota of larger cities, we decided to spend most of the day in the country around Pruem, a small town with a US Air Force base at which my brother had worked for a couple of years in the late eighties. It turned out to be a good move, as this was some of the most beautiful countryside we had seen yet, with gently rolling landscape carpeted by thick, vividly green fields alternating with patches of mixed (leaf and pine) forests, quiet little farms, and tiny resort towns picturesque with ancient castles and lovingly maintained architectures. My mom said that on the whole, while some things had changed in her country of origin, much (such as prudent stewardship of the forest lands and industriously organized deployment of plans and resources in general) indeed had remained the same (in addition to the wonderful heart and soul of the people), and it was a delight to see.

A few hours later we reached Pruem, set amid somewhat deeper hills and thicker forests. The town was as idyllic as the countryside and the people hospitable as everywhere. We enjoyed a last transfusion of Kaffee, Pflaumenkuchen, and Eis, followed by a last roundup of Comfortable Shoes for my mom and scenic postcards for me. We were satisfied and refreshed as we enjoyed another few hours of beautiful countryside and talked about what meant most to us in devoting our lives to God, and I took the opportunity to express at length how honouring and fruitful to His Kingdom I believed her almost fifty years of working and/or teaching Nursing had been, far more than she knew. And she encouraged me as well with regards to the Cross I must carry without full understanding but for His glory.

That evening, having checked into our beloved "Himmelreich" in Braunfels, and having bought a pair of knapsacks large enough to hold the gifts we'd each bought (including 25 rolls of film I'd used!), we carefully packed everything for the trip back to America. Our evening was completed with a quiet warm-air soak in the sauna just 2 rooms away, during which my mom shared more fascinating (tragic yet oddly humorous) experiences of her childhood. In the morning we enjoyed the Hotel's continental breakfast, followed by a last visit to her friend K. before our final drive to Frankfurt. This story wouldn't be complete without an unlikely ending, which happened in Cincinnati, where we landed for a couple hours' stopover and Customs clearance. As we were heading to our last terminal, my mom needed to make a stop, so I took her carry-on bag ahead with me. A few minutes later, I saw her walking with another woman (as if being escorted) and at first I feared there was a problem. As they got closer I realized the other woman was none other than a fellow instructor from the College where she works, returning from Ireland where she'd just buried the ashes of her husband and visited some relatives.

Und so... with altered seat assignments and joyous disbelief, our journey concluded in the company of a friend. I extend my most heartfelt thanks to all of you who prayed, for this was indeed a richly blessed time with memories I will treasure always.

Sonia, August 23, 1998

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Page created 12/28/97 by Sonia Balcer, ( updated Just kidding...
actually updated 8/23/98. Visits since Aug. 23, 1998 (approximately):