Exploring Germany: Sites, Sounds, History

"Germany: A Winter Romp--Cornell Professor Explores 3 Cities' Top Sites, Sounds, Cultural History," with photographs taken by Marcia Jacobson, Ithaca Journal, Jan. 14, 2006. 1E, 3E. 

Returning to Germany gave me an opportunity to explore my family heritage and my current interests. All my great-grandparents were born in central Europe and at least two and perhaps three in what is now Germany. While I have no direct knowledge of family lost in the Holocaust, the probability of some relatives suffering and dying in concentration and death camps is very great. Many Jews named Schwarz from Essen, the city of my father’s family, perished in the Holocaust.

In 1961-2 during a Junior Year Abroad, I had visited Munich and West Berlin and had a glimpse of East Berlin and East Germany while taking a train to Warsaw and Moscow. In that year when I first discovered my love of traveling, I crisscrossed Germany in a Renault Dauphin I bought and saw several smaller cities, including Aachen and Lubeck. I spent more time then talking with and learning from other students rather than visiting museums and going to concerts. Despite our having traveled quite widely in Europe and Asia, my wife, Marcia Jacobson, and I had spent only a day long layover in Frankfurt in a 1995 trip, a layover which gave us an opportunity to explore that city’s Roman ruins and contemporary art museum.

Twentieth century history speaks more loudly in contemporary Germany than in most European venues. Travelers to Germany will complement their experience by knowing a bit about the period after World War I and the era of World War II--especially Germany’s rebirth after Nazism, the Holocaust, and ignominious defeat-- and the post war division between West Germany, originally controlled after the war by the USA, Great Britain, and France (whom the allies pretended for Cold War reasons was a victor in the War) and the Soviet controlled East Germany (known as the GDR or German Democratic Republic) from 1945 to 1989.

West Germany played an important role in developing the European Economic Community and in the Post-War European economic and cultural rebirth. The fall in 1989 of the Berlin Wall in 1989 transformed Germany culturally and geographically into a central European country as well as Western country. We came to understand something of the opportunities and complexities resulting from the reunification of Germany, including new freedom of expression and democracy for the East. But we also learned of the difficult challenges in the East resulting from the need for former East Germans to find one own way now without the Communist system shaping their lives from cradle to grave.

The sun rarely shines in December and, although the bright lights decorating streets and hotels and the legendary Christmas markets gave cities a festive atmosphere, an argument could be made for going when the weather is more likely to be better. Yet, while for many people the 30-40 degree temperatures we found in Berlin, Dresden, and Munich and an occasional flurry might seem cold, for us upstate New Yorkers the weather was rather pleasant. An advantage of Europe in winter is not only lower prices, but also the paucity of tourists at museums and major sites. Throughout the year, Germany is not nearly as expensive as Great Britain, France, Ireland or Italy. The art museums and classical music---concerts, opera, and ballet—are wonderful and reasonably priced. Often good tickets can be had for $20 or so. When the theatres are not full, patrons in rear rows can move closer to the stage.

Berlin is a walking city and our proximity to major sights and museums was a major plus. On our first morning, we took a walk on Unter den Linden to the nearby Brandenburg Gate and Reichstag.
Brandenburg Gate Brandenburg Gate

Approaching the Brandenburg gate, I expected to remember my prior visit until I realized I was approaching this time from the former East Berlin side. On another day we walked to Potsdamer Platz and saw the remnants of the wall that used to divide Germany. Once the heart of the city, but destroyed by Allied bombs, Potsdamer Platz was then divided by the wall, but since the 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell it has been rebuilt and is now a thriving commercial section.

At our first stop, Berlin, my wife and I stayed at the well-located Westin Grand Hotel on Friedrichstrasse—the city’s most glamorous street with stores such as Louis Vuitton and Gucci. The hotel and the fashionable shops on Friedrichstrasse--which crosses into the old West Berlin at Checkpoint Charlie-- are located in the former East Berlin, which came alive after the fall of the wall. We stayed at quite nice hotels while paying relatively modest prices. Always keep in mind that directly negotiating with a hotel abroad eliminates commissions for several intermediaries and that negotiating months in advance increases your leverage. Often you can do better that way than on the various discount hotel sites that often require instant payment, allow no changes in dates and exclude an ample breakfast, which can be convenient and fun. For example, included in the 136 euro price at the Berlin Westin was an elegant buffet breakfast-- a la carte it is 23 euros per person-- with a chef making omelets and complimentary champagne an option for those who wish their breakfast to include a festive note and/or for those who imbibe early. Breakfasts were quite impressive, with a wide assortment of breads, cheeses, cold fish, and meats. But the trick of “eggs over easy--and preserving the soft yolk-- remained a mystery to the egg chef as it has in so many other European hotels.

We spent six nights at the Berlin Westin Grand. Our first room was quite nice, but hardly sumptuous for a five star hotel. The hotel has 358 rooms of which 35 are suites. We had the relatively small standing TV typical of an ordinary European hotel. On the other hand, the common areas were quite elegant, particularly the large curving staircase and outsize chandelier, and the entire building was spectacularly lit inside and outside for the holiday season. Not included were the International Herald Tribune, wireless service for my computer, or complimentary bottled water—all of which one might expect at a five star property. We not only didn’t get CNN, which as most travelers know is much better abroad than at home and essential for those who wish to follow USA news, but nearly all the stations are in German. While a few light bulbs were burned out and the electric outlet on the desk was not working, the desire to please guests was strong and that took the form of excellent service, including the niceties of evening turndown service with chocolate at bedside and as well as complimentary shoe shines.

The second three nights we moved to a renovated version of the same room—one with a built in flat screen TV, a headboard, and two single beds pushed together—the usual European version of a king-size bed. Both rooms were hardly more elegant than a respectable American hotel and both rooms were on the less desirable lower floors.

My overall impression of the Berlin Grand Westin is that it is quite nice, but not really in what I think of as in the luxurious category that I have occasionally been fortunate to enjoy in such places as Hong Kong. The Westins are part of the Starwood chain that also owns the Sheratons. The service at times lacks the special graciousness one associates with truly world-class hotels. The Reservations Manager was particularly abrasive and scolding with a well-meaning guest who had a minor misunderstanding—resulting from another staff member speaking limited English-- that should have been dealt with in a courteous and forthcoming way.

We arrived in Berlin on Thursday, the day several museums are open to 10:00 pm with free admission after 6:00 pm. Thus we spent the first day at the museum complex called the Pergamonmuseum and the Egyptian Museum, both of which are on Museum Island. One ticket covers both if one goes, as we did, before the 6 o’clock jubilee of free tickets. The Egyptian museum—one of the world’s great collections of Egyptian cultural material, including the famous bust of Queen Nefertiti--was destroyed in WWII but is now located n the Old National Gallery. It will eventually have a new home where it can display far more of its collection. The Pergamonmuseum includes a fabulous collection of classical antiquities, the most notable of which is the Pergamon Altar dating from the second century BC and including a magnificent frieze. The Pergamon also includes important collections of Islamic Art and of Ancient Near Eastern Art. What makes the aforementioned museums even better are the wonderful audio guides in English.

Our visit also enabled me to pursue my lifelong fascination with Picasso, and I spent many glorious hours at a magnificent temporary exhibit entitled “The Private Picasso” at the Neue National Gallery, designed by Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe and completed in 1968. Most of the works in the exhibit came from the extensive Picasso collection in Musee Picasso in Paris, but the latter does not have space to display its entire collection at once. Nor does it usually stress, in its presentation as the Berlin exhibit did, the biographical aspect of Picasso’s work.

We spent the better part of another day looking at Old Masters at the Gemaldegalerie, which contains a wonderful European collection through the 18th century. In addition to spectacular examples of major German figures such as Durer, Cranach and Holbein, this museum features masterworks by Caravaggio, Rembrandt and Vermeer. One minor disappointment was that a special exhibit on early Renaissance painting lacked English audio or translations of written material Since English has become the international language—hardly the case when I first visited Europe 45 years ago or when I returned over the next three decades—I found this surprising. The apologetic curator told me that this was the result of budget constraints, but he assured me that this would soon be corrected.

During our Berlin stay, we also visited the National Museum on Museum Island; this museum features late and nineteenth German artists, especially David Friedrich, although it also includes a few galleries of French nineteenth century painting. This museum also had special exhibits on both Rodin—mostly photographs of his work—and f the twentieth century German painter Max Beckmann. While the permanent collection had an English audio, the special exhibits lacked either an English audio or translations of accompanying written material.

We saw a strong temporary exhibit on German immigration at the Exhibition Hall of the German Historical Museum—designed by I.M. Pei—to complement the reconstruction of the older historical museum on the same site. The exhibit emphasized implicitly and explicitly that Germany, like the United States, has long been a country of immigrants. We also saw the Berliner Dom—the great Protestant Cathedral—with its somewhat overstated baroque interior. That nearly every major museum and the aforementioned church are on the old East Berlin side allows one to see the cultural fissure that the wall created for West Berliners.

When one thinks of Germany one thinks particularly of music. Berlin offers a feast of alternatives with three opera houses—including the Staatskapelle Berlin, the orchestra of the Berlin’s major opera, directed by Daniel Barenboim--and outstanding concerts by other world-class artists. We saw an imaginatively staged La Boheme sung in German at the Berlin Comic Opera (komishe oper Berlin), although the Puccini opera is hardly comic. We also heard Pinchus Zuckerman as a soloist, playing both violin and viola with the Staatskapelle Berlin which he conducted. The concert was at the magnificent modern Philharmonie, with 2500 seats and enviable acoustics. For both events, we had no trouble getting tickets upon our arrival and we saw some empty seats.

Synagogue Synagogue, Berlin

Jewish Sites in Berlin:
Germany is attentive to its role in the Holocaust and German students are required to learn about Germany’s Jewish heritage. On the site of the Neue Synagogue, once the center of German Jewry that had seating for 3200 worshippers, the Germans have rebuilt the exterior dome and three rooms and turned these rooms into a small museum of Berlin Jewry focusing on the role of the synagogue in Berlin life. We also visited the Jewish Museum in Berlin, which is housed in a new postmodernist building designed by Daniel Libeskind as both am eloquent testimony and memorial to German-Jewish life. Its with narrow empty spaces represent Memory Voids. This large museum—visited by 700,000 people per year, including a great many German students-- stresses German-Jewish life since the Middle Ages and most of the exhibits have English translations.

Holocaust Memorial Holocaust Memorial, Berlin

In 2005 an impressive Holocaust memorial intelligently designed by Peter Eisenman opened in Berlin. Its English title “The Memorial To the Murdered Jews of Europe” hardly does justice to the integrity of the presentation and scholarship. Different sized concrete rectangles represent both the impersonality of unmarked memorial stones and of concentration camps. What is modestly called the “Information Center” is really a substantial Holocaust museum. The latter efficiently and succinctly presents the history of the Holocaust without pulling any punches about Germany’s role. The impeccable English translations and accompanying English audio materials make the entire exhibit accessible to an American audience. Most moving are individual dairies and family histories. Since Holocaust Studies is one of my academic fields, I have visited a fair share of these memorials and I found this one among the most effective in presenting factual material in a historical context. Jews, like me, whose have been in the US or other countries for a number of generations can look up family names in the database of Yad Vashem—the Holocaust museum and research facility in Jerusalem—that is available at the Memorial and speculate on how many are distant relatives. Looking up Schwarz from Essen and finding quite a number of names was a moving experience, although I cannot pinpoint which were my relatives.

After taking a scheduled two hour train ride to Dresden in the former GDR, we stayed at the Westin Bellevue in Dresden—cost about $130 per night with breakfast-- for our two nights. From our hotel we had a view of the baroque silhouette that makes Dresden the consensus view as Germany’s most attractive city. Our room and the exercise facility were quite similar to those at the Berlin Westin, although we did have CNN on our TV. But our breakfast was less sumptuous.

While close to the main sites, the walk over Augustus Bridge to the ancient city was a little daunting in the evening because in Dresden we encountered cold, rainy weather. On our first night we returned to the hotel for a dinner and a Las Vegas type show that had played successfully in Berlin for seven years. Few in the audience could understand lyrics from American pop music, but that didn’t stop them from being overwhelmingly enthusiastic. For a dinner served to a hundred guests the quality was quite high.

On our second night we saw the Dresden Ballet’s presentation of Ludwig Minkus’s “Don Quixote” at its baroque Semperoper opera house, rebuilt by the GDR. Severely bombed by the allies at the end of World War II, culturally isolated during the Soviet domination of East Germany, and the victim of a serious flood within the last few years, Dresden has had its share of twentieth century traumas. With its striking baroque architecture at is cultural center and its location on the Elbe, Dresden recalls Prague as a quaint river city.

Dresden is relatively prosperous but the former East Germany has a much higher unemployment rate than the West, particularly in rural areas, and many young people find jobs in the former West Germany. It is noticeable that most service jobs in the hotels and restaurants we visited are held, not by recent immigrants, but young Germans whose families have lived in Germany for generations.

Dresden Art Museum Dresden Art Museum

Dresden’s great sights include some memorable churches—the Catholic Hofkirche and the rebuilt Protestant Frauenkirche—a well as the Old Masters Gallery (Gemaldegallerie) which houses one of the great collections in Europe, including Raphael’s Sistine Madonna and which had a fascinating and brilliantly organized special exhibit of Spanish art: Goya, Velasquez, El Greco. The Nazis destroyed the old baroque synagogue but a new modern structure with a congregation of 90 per cent Russian immigrants has been built in its place.

Christmas Markets Christmas Market

We took a tiring seven hour plus train ride with two stops to Munich (cost about $76) and arrived at the main train station where we took the underground to the Arabella Sheraton Grand Hotel, which is a nice property but is a little out of the way from the main sites. We did not get to explore the main squares until the next day, Dec. 24th, celebrated in Munich as much if not more of a holiday than Christmas itself. While museums were closed that day, many opened on Christmas day. But we saw a wonderful array of gothic and rococo churches as well as shops—including the little temporary shops comprising the outdoor Christmas markets that are a custom in all the cities we visited—were open until 2:00pm.

We enjoyed a cup of warm mulled wine at one of these festive shops in Marianplatz, the square that is the heart of Munich. Marianplatz features a Glockenspiel clock, a nineteenth century neo-gothic City Hall (Neues Rathaus), and a column on which stands a statue of the Virgin Mary for which the square is named. Nearby by are two of my favorite Munich churches, the tiny but magnificently ornate rococo Asamkirche at 62 Sendlingenstrasse and the baroque Theatinerkirche with its white interior. We spent much of Christmas Day at the Haus der Kunst—once the sight of Hitler’s exhibits of Degenerate Art (read: modernism) as well as Nazi art—which had three splendid exhibits: 17th and 18th century French masterpieces from German collections; art by siblings (the Breughals, Duchamps, and Giacomettis, among others); and the American photographer Lee Friedlander. None of the exhibits provided audios in English, and only the Friedlander (which originated in MOMA) had English titles. A Munich highlight on our last night in Germany was a spectacular Christmas evening performance of Mozart’s The Magic Flute at the world famous Munich National opera House (Bayerische Staatsooer), although the only available tickets were for standing room.

As a student in 1962 I recall eating weinerschnitzl every night, but we feasted on some wonderful meals at moderate prices. We had quite a splendid dinner at Refugium in Gendarmenmarkt (close to our Berlin hotel) where we had a fish translated as perchpike and a three course special dinner, each course including a dish made from wild duck. Perhaps even better was Bocca di Bacca, one of Berlin’s finest Italian restaurants, which was within a 100 yards of our hotel on Friedrichstasse, where we had scampi risotto and thin spaghetti with sea urchin and artichokes one night and gnocchi with quail ragout and a ravioli with ricotta another. To describe briefly these Italian briefly is to give short shrift to signature cooking of the kind one would pay a great deal more for in Manhattan.

Among the more interesting meals were those featuring game such as goose, wild duck, wild boar, and venison. Meals even at quite good restaurants tended not to be too expensive. Since tax and tip are included—one adds a few Euros for the waiter—the menu cost is the total cost. In Berlin we had dinner at the Westin’s restaurant, Friedrich’s, and found the service courteous if slow, the food quite good if not exceptional, and the price quite reasonable. The portions were on the small size but the experience was positive and the cost with one beer about $65. Marcia and I invariably order two entrees together and share, and we had venison and wild boar. In Munich we at the our hotel’s featured restaurant, Paulaner’s, and were impressed with the exquisite presentation of some dishes, especially a delicious small fried lobster. We also ate a their less expensive Bavarian restaurant where we had a moderately priced dinner with main courses of exceptional roast duck and respectable venison.

On the whole the Germans are friendly and forthcoming, but English is spoken less than travelers might expect, especially outside of Berlin. Our composite German proficiency, while not zero, made communication more difficult than in many European countries. Yet many Germans—especially those in their twenties and thirties--were extremely gracious in helping us figure out how to buy train and underground tickets, especially in Munich where many different options—all in German—are offered. Contrary to stereotypes, Germans were for the most part friendly and helpful, although waiters and waitresses do not work for tips and some seemed tad perfunctory. For the most part service at the Westin was excellent, although occasionally requests for ice took a while.

Germany is an innovative and socially responsive nation, with a concern for the environment and the less fortunate in its own ranks and in the world beyond. But it faces many interrelated challenges, including income disparity between West and East and unemployment, especially in the East. The latter results in displacement because people reluctantly leave their hometowns in the old GDR for employment in the Western part. Some of those lagging behind economically feel a sense of alienation and uselessness and this can accompany their resentment of recent immigrants. Thoughtful Germans worry about the threat of political extremism that derives in part from widespread mistrust in political leadership and a growing gap between rich and poor. Some of our pleasures were conversations with people we met, especially well-informed younger people whom we met on trains and other public transportation as well as in museums. Many of these people expressed cautious optimism about the New Europe that is emerging and an idealistic and thoughtful commitment to a united and democratic Germany. Their hope is that history written by coming generations will reflect Germany’s leadership role in responding to the world’s social ills while including a full awareness of Germany’s wrongs in the first half of the twentieth century.


Air: Direct Flight on Delta from JFK to Berlin; Return on Delta: Munich/Paris/ Kennedy. We drove down and left our car--indoor parking which is convenient in winter-- for 12 nights at Radisson JFK and then stayed overnight on our return. One Night Hotel and Parking: $179.

Berlin: The Westin Grand (www.wesin.com/berlin)
Dresden: Westin Bellevue (email: hotelinfo@westin-bellevue.com)
Munich: Arabella Sheraton Grand Hotel (www. arabellasheraton.com)

Berlin: Bocca di Bacco; Refugium; Friedrich’s
Dresden: Palais
Munich: Paulaner’s