Friday, November 27, 2015

Retribution: The Bombing of Freiburg - Postcard from Germany

In Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany

Staring out the bathroom window of the building where I first lived in Freiburg, Germany in the early 1970s, I could see the intricately ornate 380-foot spire of the city’s famous Minster.  Although this cathedral has been the seat of the Archdiocese of Freiburg since the early 19th century, it has always belonged to the people of Freiburg and they are rightfully proud of its beauty and significance.  Often called one of the most beautiful churches in the world, it was partly for this reason that I climbed up into the 700 year old spire on one of my first days after arriving in Freiburg in the autumn of 1971.  I did not realize at that time how privileged I was to have this opportunity.  But for the grace of God this magnificent structure almost perished from the face of the earth just 27 years earlier.  It had survived wars and catastrophes throughout its long history, a history that came close to its end on the night of November 27, 1944 when some 300 Royal Air Force bombers laid the city in ruins, killing almost 3000 civilians and injuring 10,000 more.

This was not the first raid on Freiburg during the war.  Ironically, the first bombs to fall on the city were German.  Writing in his Berlin Diary (1941), the Germany-based American correspondent William Shirer noted that "three Allied planes dropped bombs in the middle of Freiburg on May 10, 1940, killing 24 civilians" (German claims were nearly triple that number).  The Nazi propaganda machine quickly seized the attack for its own purposes, claiming first that the enemy aircraft were French before later blaming the RAF.  It also reported that over half of the victims were children.  It was not until 1956 when the German military historian Anton Hoch described how the bombs that fell on Freiburg in May 1940, killing nearly 60, actually came from German Luftwaffe bombers on a raid to Dijon, France.  Somehow they had lost their bearing in bad weather.

Freiburg never possessed significant strategic or military importance to the Reich during the early years of the war and the skies over Freiburg remained relatively quiet.
In fact, German refugees from other cities targeted by the Allies fled to the relative peace and quiet of southwestern Germany.  This tranquility lasted until early October 1943 when a few  American bombers attacked local rail facilities followed by some hit and run strafing attacks in September and October 1944.  There were also minor bombing runs on rail facilities and a nearby Luftwaffe base in early November 1944 prior to the catastrophic raid on the city later that month.

With the Allied armies advancing across France and drawing ever closer to the German frontier along the Rhine River only a few miles west of Freiburg, the city took on new importance to German military planning and future troop deployments to the approaching front lines.  These developments also made it a target for Allied strategic and saturation bombing operations against German cities.  The major raid on Freiburg - Operation Tigerfish - would not only target rail and industrial facilities, but also the Minster and civilian areas as a means for breaking the German morale and as retribution for German raids on British cities during the Blitz four years earlier.  This included the devastating attack on Coventry during the evening of November 14, 1940 carried out by over 500 Luftwaffe bombers which virtually leveled that city’s storied cathedral.

Without any warning issued by air raid sirens the attack commenced shortly before 8pm and continued for just over an hour as the RAF bombers dropped thousands of high explosive and incendiary bombs on central Freiburg.  The casualty count would have been much higher had there not been a most unusual warning of the impending onslaught.  A drake living in the municipal park in the center of the city raised such a ruckus that many residents headed to the air raid shelters just before the raid commenced.  The duck did not survive the raid, but its clarion call saved the lives of countless Freiburgers. 

The fires burned throughout the night, and when dawn broke the following day a thick pall of smoke blanketed the city and the surrounding hills.  Much of the Old City surrounding the Minster had been leveled and numerous historic buildings dating back to as early as the 15th century had been partially or completely destroyed.  By some miracle of chance (or perhaps something more than that?), the Minster remained standing among the ruins (see the above photo) having sustained only minor cosmetic damage.  The building two blocks away where I would later live also remained standing.  The thousands who perished lay buried in the rubble.

The air raid also disturbed the sleep of Freiburg’s dead, including those interred in five separate burial grounds situated near the Minster.  The bomb damage would necessitate the removal of these burial vaults to the city’s main cemetery where they were place around the Einsegnungshalle [consecration hall].   A wooden cross was erected on the site on the first anniversary of the raid.

By the time I arrived in Freiburg in the autumn of 1971 the city had been rebuilt.  The Old City appeared much as it did before the bombs destroyed it.   Reconstruction included several memorials to those who had perished.  Today, in the middle of the main cemetery, there is a granite cross inaugurated in 1951 along with a female figure, Die Trauernde [The Mourners] by Richard Engelmann (1868-1966).  Before the consecration hall there is a  monument to the victims of the November 1944 air raid interred nearby.  On the keystone of the west tower of the Minster, near the entrance, there is now a plaque dedicated in 1994 - the fiftieth anniversary of the raid - commemorating the victims of each of the air raids on Freiburg, including the victims of the mistaken bombing by German aircraft in May 1940.  Ironically the plaque’s poem by the Freiburg poet Reinhold Schneider (1903-1958) was written ten months before the November 1944 air raid.  The city did not forget the heroic drake who warned of the impending attack, erecting a small statue created by Richard Bampi in the nearby municipal park on the anniversary of the raid in 1953.  A footbridge connecting the park with the prominent Schlossberg overlooking the city now includes several concrete reliefs completed by the artist Emil Wachter (1921-2012) in 1979 and representing the destruction of the city.  One of these motifs make reference to the German bombing of Coventry.

During my early months in Freiburg I heard a number of stories about the November 27, 1944 air raid on Freiburg.  Walking through the Old City at night I would occasionally look up into the sky and try to imagine what it must have been like . . . and shudder at the thought.   I read in the Badische Zeitung that there would be a wreath laying ceremony in front of the Minster on that anniversary of the raid.  I attended and it was a sobering experience as I listen to the prayers offered as the Minster’s bells peeled in memory of those lost.  The crowd included many who were fortunate to have survived.  I could always hear the bells from my nearby room, but that night their tone and spectral quality took on a new meaning.  As chance would have it, the following day I joined several other Americans studying in Freiburg for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner.   There was much indeed to be thankful for.  We were joined by several of our German colleagues, no longer sworn enemies but the best of friends.

I visited Freiburg again in November 1984, and one again I attended the wreath-laying commemorating the 40th anniversary of the air raid.  And once again I listened to the tolling of the Minster bells and gave thanks.   Last month I returned to Freiburg, now almost 71 years after that fateful night.   There are few alive today who remember the air raid.  The stories have now become distant history.   There is a lesson in all of this . . . we should never forget the horrors of war. 

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Thursday, November 26, 2015

Seven Years of "Looking Toward Portugal"

Seven years ago yesterday I launched this blogspot when I posted “Never too late to start.”  I had been kicking around the idea of starting my own blog site having read others; I thought it time for me to chime in.  I did not have the slightest idea then where it might take me or whether it would even last.  All I knew was that I had many things I wanted to say and perhaps this might be the perfect way to get these ideas off my chest and into “black on white.”  I could have never imagined that evening in Gainesville, Florida that Looking Toward Portugal would still be going strong seven years later.  To date I have posted 358 entries on anything, everything, and sometimes nothing at all . . . just a quick random thought in need of being set free.

The significance of the blog’s name you ask?  For almost 30 years I have been gravitating to the coast of Maine. Indeed I now spend several month there each year  and it has become my second home.  I often find myself standing on that rocky shoreline, looking out to sea and pondering this and that (some of these thoughts have been posted here).  If you gaze in a general easterly direction from the Maine coast, you will see nothing but the rolling swells of the Atlantic.  Nova Scotia is out there somewhere, but if you continue across the Atlantic you will eventually arrive on the northern shores of Portugal somewhere near Oporto.  Thus the name.   I am reminded of Jack Kerouac’s observations when he stared out across the Atlantic from the shores of Long Island . . . "this last lip of American land . . . the end of America . . . no more land . . . and now there was nowhere to go but back."   Sure we have limitations, we think we have done all that we can do.  Yet there are other possibilities out there if we only choose to look beyond those far horizons.

I am looking forward to another seven years (at least) of postings . . . new horizons.  I hope you will join me in the search.

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Wednesday, November 25, 2015

My Old Watering Holes - Postcards from Germany

In Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany

A great deal has changed in the 43 years since I was a student in Freiburg.  I visited a few times in the early years after I returned home to the States, but now it has been almost 30 years since my last visit.  I should not have been surprised that things appear different; a lot has happened in Germany since I lived there.  There is only one Germany now, something I could never have imagined in the early 1970s.  And I have also changed.  Gone is that strapping youth on the cusp of adulthood who moved about in a carefree world.  In his place is a hobbled 64 year old man wandering among today’s students thinking that their parents were mere children when he last wandered these still familiar streets and pathways. 

So when I returned to Freiburg I scouted out some of my old haunts, beginning with several local pubs to which I and some of my fellow students retreated for a couple of beers and debates after long days in the classroom or the library.  One of our favorites, the Gasthof “Die Sonne,” not far from where I lived at one time in the Littenweiler section of the city, still looked the same . . . still painted an off yellow.  Upon closer inspection, however, I noted that it was now called Ouzeria and served Greek dishes and other Mediterranean specialties.  Disappointed, I walked down the street to another favorite, the Gasthof “Zur Goldenen Krone.”  Once again, from the outside it looked much as I remembered it yet it was now “La Crona” and specialized in Italian cuisine.  The menu looked inviting, but I was still in search of some memory from the past.  Finally, I drifted to another local gathering place . . . the “Gaststätte Lindenmatte.”  It, too, looked the same as I remembered it and the sign outside still bore that familiar sobriquet.  I stepped inside and the interior had not changed noticeably in all those years.   I looked at the menu posted by the entrance.  It was now an Afghani restaurant and had been for the past 20 years.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love Afghani food, but that is not what I had come in search of.  The Lindenmatte, in the old days, was well-known for its frittierte Bratkartoffeln mit Knoblauchsoße [fried potatoes with garlic sauce], and I was happy to see that it and a few other local dishes remained on the menu.  I retired to the beer garden outside where I ordered that old specialty along with a bowl of Ash, a traditional Afghani soup with noodles, yogurt, kidney beans, chickpeas, ground beef, seasoned with dill, turmeric, and garnished with mint leaves. The best of both worlds.

The next day I caught the tram at the Littenweiler terminal and ticked off each stop from memory as I headed along Hansjakobstrasse into the city.  Römerhof, named for another Gasthof I frequented from time to time when heading home from the gym.  It is now an international school.  Then came the tram stops at Hasemannstrasse and Emil-Gött-Strasse, followed by the former Stadthalle and Messplatz stations (now renamed for the adjacent Musikhochschule and Alt-Messplatz).  This area is almost totally unrecognizable although I was happy to see the old Gasthof Schiff where I spent numerous evenings on my way back to Littenweiler.  Originally built in 1777, it looked as I remembered it on the outside, but the interior has been completely remodeled into what can only be called a fern bar and jazz club.  Another disappointment, although it still serves local fare at greatly inflated prices.  It is no longer the neighborhood Kneipe I recalled from the old days.

Back on the tram I passed the station near the Brauerei Ganter which still brews my favorite local beer, finally arriving at Schwabentor and Oberlinden, in the Altstadt, which was my home when I first arrived in Freiburg.  I had a small room in the Haus der blauen Lilie, in the Salzstrasse.  When I moved in it reminded me a great deal of the room portrayed in Carl Spitzweg’s very famous Biedermeier painting, “Der Arme Poet.”  The building still looks the same.  It was originally constructed circa 1460 although I swear the bathroom down the hall was older than that!

I hoped that perhaps the nearby watering holes I frequented those many years ago would look the way I remembered them.  There were a number of places situated around the nearby Marktplatz and its imposing 800 year old Minster, often called one of the most beautiful churches in the world.  Wandering the market I noted again how much the Germans seem to have acquired tastes for cuisines other than their own.  I remember the Minster surrounded by little wagons offering assorted grilled sausages served with onions and doused with spicy mustard.  I found only one where I could still order a “rote Lange” served with a hard roll and wrapped in waxed paper.  Others had been replaced with the ubiquitous Turkish döner kebab stands found throughout Germany.  I opted for my old favorite which I ate as I walked around the market and through the familiar passageways in my old city neighborhood.  And there it was!  Another of my favorite watering holes.

Gasthof zum Deutschen Haus, in the Schusterstrasse, dates from around the same time as my former residence in the Salzstrasse two blocks away.  It looked just as I remembered it.  Surely a local with such a name would remain authentic to its Germanic roots, and so I decided to go in and wash my lunch down with some local beer.  Is it possible it had not changed in 43 years?  I was pleasantly surprised as I entered this favorite watering hole.  I had stepped into the past I was in search of.  If there were changes, they were not perceptible to the naked eye.  The wooden tables and chairs; the framed photographs, maps and etchings on the wall; the polished wooden bar in the back, and the Stammtisch with its familiar “Reserviert” sign for favored denizens.  I pulled up a stool at the bar and enjoyed a couple mugs of Ganter beer while I skimmed the day’s edition of Badische Zeitung (I still have a faded clipping of the paper’s 1972 review of a play I co-wrote and directed while living in Freiburg). 

The American writer Thomas Wolfe once claimed you can’t go home again, and in many ways this is true.  Freiburg has changed so much since I lived there; things look familiar, but they are not the same.  Time marches on.  Still, it was nice to find a place that has remained much as I remember it.  The people might be new, tastes change. and the world outside is rushing into the unknown future.  There is nothing we can do about that.  Thankfully a few places have not been in such a hurry.  And the mugs of Ganter taste just as good as they did back in the day.  Perhaps one can never truly go home again, but Wolfe also understood the opportunities available to those who tried.  “Some things will never change. Some things will always be the same. Lean down your ear upon the earth and listen.”   I am glad I followed his advice.  “I have to see a thing a thousand times before I see it once.”   

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Monday, November 16, 2015

In This Peaceful Valley - Postcards from Germany

In Freiburg in Breisgau, Germany

During a recent trip through Germany I spent a delightful week in Freiburg im Breisgau where I attended university in the early 1970s.  It has been thirty years since I was last there and I was curious how much the town had changed over the years.  What a treat it was to wander about places that held so many fond memories from the past.  While I was there I reflected on its long history and I recalled a time when this place, where the Black Forest merges with the Rhine River valley, was the site of a major battle over three centuries ago. 

The Battle of Freiburg during the Thirty Years War is popularly known as the Three Day Battle as it took place on three non-consecutive days - August 3, 5 and 9/10, in 1644.  A united French army of approximately 16,000 troops commanded by a young Louis II de Bourbon, the Duke of Enghein and a cousin of Ludwig XIV, and by Marshal Henri de la Tour d'Auvergne, Viscount of Turenne, tried to recapture the city which had recently fallen to a Bavarian army under General Field Marshal Franz, Baron von Mercy on July 28, 1644 following a five week siege. 

Mercy had fought the French at Tuttlingen in November 1643 and began to assert Bavarian hegemony throughout Swabia, Breisgau and the Upper Rhine.  In April 1644 Maximillian I sent an army under Mercy through the Black Forest to engage French forces under Turenne near Breisach, on the Rhine near Freiburg.  After laying siege to Uberlingen, on Lake Constance, in May 1644, Mercy left a covering force there and advanced his army of approximately 16,000 troops toward Freiburg and the Rhine where it arrived on June 26.  The French under Turenne, not prepared to do battle against a superior Bavarian army, were forced to watch helplessly as Mercy besieged the French garrison in the city which fell a month later.  A French army under Enghein finally arrived in Breisach on August 2 fresh from his great victory of Rocroy to reinforce Turenne.  But they were too late to save the city.  By this time the Bavarians were well entrenched on the Schönberg and Lorrettoberg, known then as the Schlierberg, on the southern edge of Freiburg.  Nevertheless, the young and brash Enghein, who assumed command of the united French armies, chose to launch a full frontal assault against the Bavarian positions on August 3. 

The first day of the battle found approximately 16,000 French troops advancing from Breisach.  Enghein and his army of 10,000 proceeded directly to the foot of the Schönberg near Ebringen, while Turenne’s 6,000 troops advanced through the hills south of the city to Wittnau in order to attack Mercy's entrenchments from the rear.  Turenne encountered the enemy at Wittnau and forced the Bavarians to retreat toward Merzhausen where Mercy’s resistance stiffened preventing Turenne from gaining his objective at Uffingen and the flanking of Mercy’s defensive line.  In the meantime, Enghein’s force slowly advanced up the slopes of the Schönberg under merciless Bavarian firepower.  The French suffered heavy casualties and were thrown into disorder.  Forced to reassemble, Enghein mounted another assault against the entrenched summit of the Schönberg. Mercy, whose was forced to divide his troops in order to halt Turenne’s advance at Merzhausen, abandoned the Schönberg for new entrenchments on the Lorettoberg.  The first day was a stalemate as rain began to fall.

There was no fighting on August 4 as the two French armies reunited at Merzhausen where they were deployed for a new assault against the Bavarian positions on the Lorettoberg. On August 5 Enghein attacked straight to his front with successive waves of troops.  Fearing a breach the Bavarian line, Mercy ordered a quick counterstrike and forced the French to withdraw, again with heavy casualties.  There was no fighting for the next three days.  The French received food and supplies from Breisach while Mercy sought to resupply his troops from Villingen, to the northeast. 

On the morning of August  9th Turenne marched his army via Betzenhausen and Denzling and into the Glottertal while Enghein and his cavalry remained at Merzhausen facing the Lorettoberg.  It was his plan to have Turenne cut the Bavarian supply line forcing Mercy to either attack or retreat.  Little did Enghein realize that during the night of August 9/10 Mercy had left a  garrison facing him while marching to Sankt Peter to gather munitions.  There Mercy and Turenne fought a quick yet indecisive forward action before retreating as the rest of Turenne’s army advanced through the Glottertal.

Enghein’s strategy failed and Mercy’s army, although suffering heavy casualties, withdrew intact to Rothenburg ob der Tauber without serious loss of weapons and material.  Mercy abandoned Freiburg to the French yet his army survived to fight another day. The battle was a tactical victory for the French despite the heavy casualties and within  the next two months Enghein and his united French army were able to conquer much of the Rhine valley.

Thankfully peace now reigns in a valley I love so much.

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Sunday, November 1, 2015

Postcards from Germany

I have recently returned home from a long-awaited and much anticipated visit to Germany.  Due to a very busy schedule and the lack of adequate Wi-Fi and internet connections overseas, I was unable to post as I moved around the countryside.  Even in Berlin I felt cut off.  Still, I kept copious notes in my travel journal and outlined a series of “Postcards from Germany” with the intention of posting them once I returned home.  Several of these “postcards will appear here throughout November.  I hope you will check them out.

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