Sunday, January 23, 2011

Bring Out Your Dead

In one of our earlier blogs I mentioned the Bring Out Your Dead trash service we have in Weilerbach. Just in case you’ve never seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail, or just to remind you, here’s a short video.

Like so many services improved over the centuries; building, baking, shoe repair etc., trash pickup has also evolved beyond what you see in this Monty Python skit. First of all, they don’t routinely pick up dead folks at the curb anymore. The carcasses our Bring Out Your Dead service picks up are old washers and driers, refrigerators, mattresses, old furniture, stuff the normal trash service won’t pick up. There’s actually three or more of these Bring Out Your Dead gentlemen that occasionally drive through our town. The guy here in our video has a very nice truck, relatively clean and an automatic bell. A couple of the others we’ve seen use a much older truck with a driver and a bell ringer; a serious hold-the-bell-by-the-handle-and-shake-it-out-the-window bell ringer. These Bring Out Your Dead guys seem to show up at random times but somehow our German neighbors know when they’ll be here because we’ll see some of these larger refuse items prepositioned at the curb. But the Bring Out Your Dead folks want to drum up more business and so they drive slowly through the streets ringing their bell so that by the time they get around the block you can drag out your carcasses and be waiting for them.

The video Jeff made here was done on a very foggy day so it adds a little ambiance to the scene. As the Bring Out Your Dead guy drives in front of our house he sees Jeff hanging out the window taping him and he gestures to ask Jeff if we need anything picked up. That’s when you hear Jeff say, “No, good.”

Now the thing that's great about our Bring Out Your Dead men is that should we be struck by another Black Plague here in Germany, we've got the guys already in place to haul off the results.


Jeff and I went up to Spangdahlem Air Base, about an hour north of us, to spend an enjoyable Friday night with the 81st Fighter Squadron, the only A-10 squadron remaining in Europe. We stayed the night in a very nice suite in base billeting. After a nice sleep in Saturday we got up and drove over to Bitburg.

My dad was stationed at Spangdahlem in the 60's but, because of the proximity of the two bases, we got base housing at Bitburg. Here's Bitburg Air Base stairwell housing. This is where I lived with my dad, mom and sister. Building 33, apartment E4. It's a ghost town now for the most part. Only support facilities have been open at Bitburg for the last 16 years or so. The jets are long gone and the entire complex is planned to be closed in the next 4-5 years.

I attended 3rd, 4th and 5th grade here.

OK, as Jeff said, let's get out of the past and into the present. You might want to grab a beer for the rest of this blog because that's what it's about. Wow, big surprise. In fact, if you can grab a Bitburger you'll appreciate this even more.

We had planned on going to the Bitburger souvenir store when we discovered they have a whole new complex in Bitburg. It's located on the grounds of their old brewery. They moved their present brewing operations out to the edge of town in the early 80's. When we parked the car at this new showroom facility in town we looked up at this large window only to see this image beckoning to us. Once we got inside we learned they were going to have an English tour of the place at 1PM. We had an hour to kill.

The solution to that was easy. Walk across the street to the Eifelbrau, a hotel and gasthaus. Guess what beer they served? You got that right, Bitburger Premium Pils.

Some group showed up after us and ordered a bunch of Bitburgers. These are little .3 liter glasses. It takes seven minutes to pour a pils properly. No tilting the glass and pouring on the side. You gotta pour it straight in to the build a head and release the fragrance and tastes of the beer. These beers are after the initial pour awaiting a little settling.

A nice video of the second pour.

The finished product waiting for delivery.

A little beer lesson. The Germans have a purity law that covers the production of beer. It's called the Reinheitsgebot. It specifies the only ingredients that are allowed in the production of beer in Germany and of the beers sold in the country. Those ingredients are water, malt, hops and yeast. That's it.

The tour through the old grounds of the Bitburger brewery was great! Very thorough, concise, easily understood and the best part, at the end, free beer.

Bitburger beer was first brewed in 1817. It is now owned and operated by the family's seventh generation. Originally, the beer was a top fermented beer, an ale, because of the known technology. However, once refrigeration became available, Bitburger changed to a bottom fermentation process, a lager beer, which the brewery still makes today. The Bitburger brewery was completely destroyed during World War II but was rebuilt. Their much recognized logo of "Bitte ein Bit" means "A Bit please." They had another phrase that was commonly on their bottles into the 1970's, "Abends Bit, morgens fit," "Bit in the evening, fit in the morning." Supposedly, it implied that a Bitburger was a good remedy for a hangover in the morning. Today, Bitburger is the third largest producer of beer in Germany behind Oettinger and Krombacher.

After a history of the Bitburger brewery the first stop on the tour was an explanation of the water the brewery uses. Bitburg owns five of its own wells. They add nothing to the water they use in their brewery process.

Bitburg uses only two row barley for the malt used to make Bitburger. The sugars that result from the malt in the brewing process feed the yeast that's introduced later.

Hops adds a natural preservative and the level of bitter flavor to a beer. Brewers use only the female flower of the hops plants and among hops farmers the joke is that a hops field should be like a convent. Unfertilized and female.

As mentioned, yeast feeds on the sugars that the malt produces during this whole process. A yeast cell then produces two waste products that are highly desired; alcohol and carbon dioxide, the kick and the fizz. Yeast isn't actually mentioned in the original Germany beer purity law because back then, people didn't know about yeast and what it's part was in the brewing process.

There was a lot more to the tour, the whole brewing process plus bottling and kegging the beer. It was a really good tour. Once it was over though, this is where we ended up. The same image that beckoned to us from the parking lot.

Two happy beer connoisseurs.

Here's the original and the latest image that appears on every Bitburger. Contrary to what some think, it's not a picture of any one specific person. A lotta folks think it's an image of Theobald Simon, the third generation leader of the company, who took over operations of the brewery at 29 years old in 1876. It's not, and that's official. Straight from the Bitburger tour guide.

The exterior of the post-World War II Bitburger brewery. It now houses the brewery museum tour and is attached to the city's performing arts hall.

The gausthaus that Theobald Simon established in the late 1800's right next to the brewery, the Simonbrau. Still owned by the Bitburger brewery today.

At the Simonbrau after the tour. Hey, they serve Bitburger. Another great day in Germany.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011



During our drive home from Berlin we noticed a very large monument high on a ridge a few miles north of the A-4 autobahn, just past the city of Weimar. That was quickly followed by a small sign on the autobahn that mentioned something about Buchenwald. Jeff turned the GPS on to nearby points of interest and there it was, Buchenwald Concentration Camp Memorial. We selected that as our new destination and followed the GPS to Buchenwald.

The road up the Etterberg, a large hill overlooking the plains of the German state of Thüringen, to the memorial is named Blutstraße, Blood Road. Buchenwald sits just over the crest of the hill on the north face of the Etterberg. The concentration camp was established in July 1937 to house various types of prisoners from all over Europe; Jews, Soviet prisoners of war, gypsies, political dissidents, homosexuals, Poles, Slovaks, Jehovah Witnesses, common criminals and a few hundred western POW's including American airman. The camp continued its brutal operation until its liberation by US troops on 11 April 1945. It was the first concentration camp encountered by American forces and radio reports, photos and movie reels of their findings shocked the world.

Entry to the memorial camp is free. Jeff and I paid the 3 Euros for an audio tour. Once we walked through the front gate, two things were striking about the location of the camp based on its high vista on the Etterberg. First, because of the height of the camp, without a doubt, on clear days, the camp inmates could certainly see well beyond the barbwire to the flat lands below, a bitter realization of their cruel circumstances. Second, even though the day we were there was a relatively warm winter afternoon, 48 F, the wind, high on the hill, was chillingly cold and we could easily imagine how unkind that wind had been for the camp inmates.

This is the front gate to the camp. We're standing on a road leading into the camp that became known as Caracho Path. It's the path new arrivals used on their way from the railway yard into the camp. It's the path that slave labor work details took to and from the quarry and local armament factories. When on the Caracho Path inmates were ruthlessly rushed and cursed and sometimes died. You can see the windows to the left of the gate are all covered. These rooms were the camp bunker cells.

The clock on the gate tower is forever frozen at 3:15, the time US forces arrived at the camp on 11 April 1945.

The greeting on the main gate, "To Each His Own." However, a more literal interpretion is "Everyone Gets What He Deserves."

The bunker hallway. Small 4'x 6' cells. Camp rules said the maximum period an inmate could be held in the bunker was 21 days but it was not uncommon for a person to spend months alone in one of these isolation cells. The first cell on the left was for inmates that were to be executed the next day.

One of 23 guard towers that surrounded the camp. The electric, barbed wire fence was charged to 300 volts. On the right side of this photo, outside the fence, you can see a gray, rock formation. This was the bear pit, part of the camp zoo. The commandant had the zoo built for the amusement of his wife and children. There were four bears in the pit that could be seen by the inmates. Interestingly, the wife of the commandant was a sadistic brute in her own right which would eventually result in her sentence of life in prison following the war.

This photo was taken just inside the front gate at the very top of the camp. The camp terrain sloped downward to the north. Far in the distance you can see the plains and now, the modern wind generators so common in Germany.

The camp crematorium. It's estimated that over 55,000 inmates were killed during the eight years of Buchenwald's operation. The crematorium became necessary when the SS couldn't keep up with the removal of human remains. Buchenwald was not an extermination camp like Auschwitz or Treblinka. It was a slave labor camp but the unspeakable cruelty of the SS resulted in mass death from malnutrition, exhaustion and punishment.

When execution was warranted, in the minds of the SS guards, one technique was to bring an inmate in for a medical exam. The inmate would walk into what appeared to be a medical office in the basement of the crematorium and be told their height and weight were needed. They were me asked to back up to this height measuring station. The groove that allowed the measuring device to slide up and down contained a slot that opened to a small room on the other side of the wall. In that room an SS guard waited for the inmate to back up to the wall to have his height measured. Once the inmate was in place the guard place a pistol into the slot and shot the inmate in the back of the head. This elaborate ruse was intended to give the murdering guard peace of mind by not having to look an inmate in the eye before killing them.

The ovens of Buchenwald. These ovens were built by Topf & Söhne (Sons) an company that manufactured furnace and maulting equipment. Their chief engineer would eventually die in a Russion gulag. After the war, the company was nationalized by the East German government and continued operation until 1996.

These two buildings are at the bottom of the camp. The large building is the camp depot, where inmate belongings were stored, sorted and, if reuseable, prepared for shipment. The small building is the delousing station where inmates were dipped into a tank containing a very caustic delousing liquid.

This photo is looking from the depot and delousing buildings back up the hill to the main gate. You can easily see how steep the terrain was in the camp. Just inside the main gate was a large mustering area where inmates would have to stand motionless and silent for long, drawn out roll calls. You can imagine that the sloping terrain made these sessions even more painful.

This is the Buchenwald monument that we could see four miles from the autobahn. It was built by the East German government in the late 1950's. This is a very large complex which incorporates three mass grave sights.

A closer view of the monument and the statue. This area is just over the crest of the hill from the concentration camp on the south side of the Etterberg. Down the hill from the monument are stairs leading to the natural depressions in the earth that were used by SS guards to bury as many as 3000 corpses.

A view from behind the statue that shows just how high above the German plains the monument and the camp sits.

Buchenwald did not end it's infamous service at the end of the war. Once Soviet forces took control of the area they used the camp until 1950 to imprison as many as 25,000 former Nazis and enemies of Stalinist Russia. Over 7000 inmates died during this time and are buried in a mass grave adjacent to the camp.

Jeff and I had been to the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial a number of times in the past. That camp was built very near a good size town and just outside Munich. Because of it's remoteness and exposure to the winds and cold of the Etterberg, Buchenwald just seemed more brutal and more forbidding.

Well, we started our drive home. Lots to think about, lots to talk about, a very emotional and thought provoking afternoon but one we were glad we had an opportunity to experience.

Monday, January 17, 2011


Spent last weekend in Berlin. We've been to Berlin a few times before but we hadn't been there since 11 November 1989. That was a Saturday and just two days after the Berlin wall was finally opened on Thursday, 9 November 1989. For that trip, that same Thursday in 1989, Jeff had to quickly get Flag Orders that allowed us to travel across East Germany. That day he also bought a new hammer and chisel because we were going to Berlin to pound on the wall and get us some souvenirs.

Even though the wall was opened, we still had to travel north to Check Point Alpha where we were briefed by US military police on procedures for crossing East Germany. We still had to pass through three Russian checkpoints on the drive through East Germany. And, upon arrival in West Berlin, we had to check-in at Check Point Bravo to let our security forces know that we had arrived safely. The next day, Saturday, 11 November 1989, Veterans Day, Jeff, Megan and I spent two hours chiseling away on the Berlin wall. The cement was tremendously hard. Huge holes were already in the wall. Stepping through to the east side, which would have gotten you shot just weeks before, resulted in East German guards laughingly telling you to step back to the west.

So even though we had already made a number of trips to Berlin, when we had passed through Check Point Charlie and seen the no-man's land on the east side, we wanted to go back and see the city without the wall. We wanted to see the new building that has gone on over the last twenty years and places in the old east Berlin that we didn't have an opportunity to see back then. An additional reason to make the trip to Berlin was an exhibition at the Deutsches Historisches (German History) Museum entitled Hitler und die Deutschen (Hitler and the Germans).

The drive to Berlin was six hours. We arrived Thursday evening and checked in to our hotel just a short walk north of the Kurfurstendamm, the high-end shopping street in Berlin. Jeff had already done a good bit of research on where we wanted to eat and places where we wanted to sample the local beer and that venture began Thursday night. Friday we did the Deutsches Historishches Museum first thing then did the old East Berlin sightseeing we wanted to accomplish. Saturday we jumped on one of those all-city bus tours which wound through the entire city, both old west and east Berlin. Saturday afternoon we finished up our sightseeing loose ends. In amongst all the looking around activities we were also able to visit some very fine eating and beer drinking establishments. Sunday morning we started home with an interesting development on the way.

So here's our Berlin experience in pictures. Just one observation before we get started. The main shopping areas in the old west Berlin seemed pretty quiet. There was so much more activity in the new shopping areas of old east Berlin along Friedrichstraße and Alexander Platz. Of course, it's all one city now so it really doesn't matter.

Our first night, Thursday, we walked ten minutes from our hotel to Zillemarkt. Really cool place, really mediocre food. Since Jeff had read that currywurst was invented in Berlin in 1949 he had to finally try it. OK, that squares filled. I had rouladen, stuffed cabage with ground beef. Disappointly bland. The Berliner beers was great.

The Deutsches Historisches Museaum was a great experience. The exhibit showed how the Nazi party totally infiltrated itself into German society; intellectually, financially, poltically and commercially. Through a myriad of amazing artifacts, pictures, movies, personal testimony and more, it showed how it came that the German people followed Hitler and the Nazis to their destruction.

After the museum we set out to see some of the sights. This is the Berlin Dom (Cathedral). It's the largest protestant church in Germany and was situated in old East Berlin. It was reopened in 1994 after reunification. It's also the church where Herman Goring was married. His best man? Adolf Hitler.

Brandenburg Gate looking towards the west. The new US embassy is just to the left of the gate, the French embassy to the right.

A double line of bricks runs through the city where the wall once stood. These bricks are just down the street from the Brandenburg Gate.

Here's a picture of the Brandenburg Gate taken when the wall was still in place. The circle on the wall is about where Jeff, Megan and I pounded on the wall over 21 years ago. Today, just beyond the gate is the US embassy and further into that no-man's land, across the street from the embassy is a large Holocost Memorial.

I'm standing out in the street on the double line of bricks within a few feet of where we chipped concrete from the wall 21 years ago.

Checkpoint Charlie is still there, mostly to support the souvenir vendors and museum that surround the area. Of course, this is facing toward East Berlin and that's why there's the large photo of a Russian soldier. On the opposite side, facing west, is a picture of an American GI.

This warning sign is still there and still a popular photograph with the tourists.

The wall, of course, is no longer there. Just past Checkpoint Charlie is this line of double bricks with this inscription. Mauer=Wall. Wonder if the Twins catcher, Joe Mauer, knows that?

We drove out to the Deutsch-Russisches (Russian) Museum. 21 years ago it was the Russian Museum. Either way, this is the building where Germany's final surrender was signed. The building itself was a former German officers club which the Soviet Union took over as they approached Berlin. (That's the exact thing I'd do if I had an opportunity; make the enemy's officers club my headquarters.) 21 years ago it was all from the perspective of the Russians and their view of the war and the evil Nazis. That included pictures of the main Nuremburg war criminals on slabs after they'd been hung; even Herman Goring after he poisoned himself. Now, it's a joint view of the war, both German and Russian, and the hardships that both countries endured. Sadly, the war criminal corpse pictures are gone.

Jeff standing in the room where the surrender was signed. This was the first time we'd been to the former East Berlin and not been in uniform. 21 years ago and before, whenever we entered East Berlin we had to wear our uniforms, full dress blues. This was apparently because the US did not recognize East Germany and I think they wanted us in uniform so that East Berlin authorities were less likely to approach us. We were also required to remove our name tags so that no commie spies could easily identify us.

After a tough day of sightseeing we went to Prater Gastette & Biergarten. It's the oldest and largest beer garden in Berlin. The beer garden is really large and, of course, not open in January. However, the Gastette (restaurant) is probably the closest thing to a beer hall in Berlin. It's a big, plain room, wooden, creaking floors and heavy wooden tables. But the crowd is happy and boisterous and the food was great!!

We ended the night on the Kurfurstendamm at a very nice bar and a couple of Berliner Kindl's.

Here's a picture of our window/door in our hotel room. Notice two things. No balcony, just step out to a 50 foot drop. Also, see the top of the city train as it passes. With a bit of a jump I'm sure Jeff could catch a ride. Amazingly enough, the soundproofing was outstanding. Close the window and the noise stayed outside. Great hotel overall too; Hampton Inn.

One more picture from our hotel, this time in the shower. Jeff said he wasn't sure what to do with the bottle on the right.

Saturday the weather was much better and, first thing, we got on the Circle City bus tour which is one of those hop off-hop on buses. We hit most of the big sights in the city and heard lots of interesting information. Here, wrapped in scaffolding is the Kaiser Wilhem Memorial Church. Although severely damaged during the war it was left intact to memorialize the survival of the people and the city. Apparently a little renovation going on.

Further along the Kurfurstendamm is this bit of art. Don't remember the name but the four pieces represent the city occupied and partitioned into four sectors; American, French, English and Soviet. The pieces are in this noodle shape, flexing and trying to reunite, yearning to be a single city once again, blah, blah, blah. Art! Don't start a war and you won't get divided up and have to yearn to reunite.

Good grief, more scaffolding! I'd like to have a piece of that business. This is the Victory Column and at least it's covered with material to reflect the actual appearance of the column when not covered. This column actually commemorates three wars that Prussia won; Denmark in 1864, Austria in 1866 and France in 1871. Man they were busy, wasn't a great time to be Prussia's neighbor. The last war in 1871 led to the unification of all German states in a single German country for the first time.

An interesting street sign in Berlin; Stauffenberg. It's named after Claus von Stauffenberg, the key member of the 20 July 1944 assasination attempt on Hilter at his Wolf's Lair headquarters in Poland. Nice that Claus has a street and none for Adolf.

1.3 kilometers of the wall still stands along the Spree River at the East Side Gallery. Over a hundred famous and world reknowned artists have contributed their work to decorating the wall. This is a view from the east side of the city.

Here's one panel of the wall at the East Side Gallery. It Leonid Brezhnev, head of the Soviet Union, and Erich Honecker, leader of East Germany in a lip lock. The statement at the bottom says, "My God, help me to survive this deadly love." The artist is Dmitri Vrubel, a Russian. Wonder where he got a picture of these guys going at it to use as his guide?

Here's an example of a typical apartment building the Soviets built for the East Germans. It was essentially a block building. You can see the lines of each cube, all stacked on top and next to each other. Sometimes the blocks didn't fit together very well. On our first visits to East Berlin as you drove by, some of these buildings you could actually see through the gaps all the way to the other side of the building. Sometimes, to hold a building together, they placed a thick cable through the entire length of the building and tightened it up to pull the blocks together. It appears that those problems have been fixed though, no visible gaps. One thing that hasn't change though, still no elevators.

The Soviet Union Unknown Soldier Memorial with the Reichstag in the background. Probably appropriate that they placed it here, so near the Reichstag where the Battle of Berlin fighting was most fierce.

The Reichstag. That glass dome is quite an impressive structure and was added to the buidling during a late 1990's renovation.

After the bus tour we were totally parched, so we went to a very modern gasthaus, part of gleaming, glass entertainment center in the Potsdamer Platz called Linderbrau. Had a sandwich and a beer. We liked this glass. Trinkt mehr bier. The universal decree, Drink more beer.

Just a short walk from Linderbrau is the Berlin Holocost Memorial which sits across the street from the American embassy and just down the road from the Brandenburg Gate.

The memorial consists of 2711 slabs of concrete or stelae. They range in height from flush with the ground on the perimeter to over 15 feet at the center. The memorial was completed in 2004 and no symbolism has been attached by the designer in either the number of stelae or overall design. Art.

Here I am at the center of the memorial and you can see just how tall the stelae are at this point.

The Fernsehturm, TV tower, in former East Berlin. Back when the city was divided it this tower was called the Pope's Revenge. That's because the catholic church had donated a considerable sum to East Berlin to help with the upkeep of the cathedrals that had been left to decay under communist rule. Well, instead of using that donation on church repairs the city used it to build the Fernsehturm. Because of the design of the tower, when the sun shines bright it reflects a shiney cross on the large ball shaped structure. The Pope's Revenge.

After the Holocost Memorial we needed something to lift our spirits and conveniently we found this place. Interesting bar, lots of pictures of Berlin in the past, all kinds of memorabilia hanging from the walls and ceilings. However, I think we were the only ones in the place not smoking. Sometimes you have to suck it up for a bit of the amber nectar.

The amazing recuperative powers of the amber nectar. These are Berliner beers, one of the local breweries.

After our recovery we walked over to the Alexancer Platz. This was all in the former East Berlin and the large building in the background was their showplace commie department store. We bought a few things there on our first visit to Berlin in 1985. Megan was only 8 months old so I bought her some bibs, commie bibs as Jeff called them. After washing, they all shrunk to about a quarter of their original size. The buidling has been completely renovated and is now a C&A store. That's me sitting at the fountain.

There was so much going on at the Alexander Platz. Lots of people coming and going. We thought these two guys were ingenious. They were wearing harnesses that had a portable grill on the front and a propane tank on the back. Came with a high speed windsheild and umbrella too. They were grilling the standard stuff, brats.

And now, as far as eating in Berlin, the Pièce de résistance, zur Letzten Instanz, The Last Instant. (Pretty cool there, French, German and English back-to-back-to-back.) It's the oldest pub/gasthaus in Berlin beginning operations in 1621. They claim that Napoleon dined here and they have a table with a large brass sign to shows where he sat. The name comes from a couple who were planning to separate but because they had such a wonderful time here, at the last instant, they decided to stay together.

Schultheiss, another local brewery. A nice way to start the evening.

Outstanding food, outstanding atmosphere, great beer and very nice people.

We sat next to a Russian gentleman. A very nice guy, Ivan. He invited us to use his flat when we go to Moscow. This is a picture of his meal. A gigantic boiled ham hock. Pounds and pounds of ham.

Well, if you're still with us that was our Berlin trip. After a wonderful night we went back to the hotel and left the next morning, Sunday. Because this blog was so long our next one will be about what we encountered on the way home. It was wonderful to be back in Berlin, two decades later. It's a great city!