Berlin Wall Memorial Diary

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Part of the original Wall at Bernauer Strasse

Seeing the 220 meters of the original Berlin Wall at the memorial on Bernauer Strasse during 2018 triggered memories of my first visit to that city, in 1991, when long stretches of the Wall had yet to be taken down. Back then, on a jaunt to Europe after college graduation, I had been amazed at everything I saw in the city. Even though I had done much research about Berlin and the history of the Wall as a student, I saw the Wall with emotional detachment. During 1991, I could not truly realize what the Wall represented. I knew it divided East and West Berlin from 1961 to 1989, and I remembered watching the joyous moments of the Berliners climbing the Wall in October of 1989 as a new era was ushered in and no one would look at the Berlin, Germany, Europe or the world the same way again. I knew there had been escape attempts, some thwarted, others successful, some resulting in death, others resulting in new beginnings in the West. But I hadn’t felt the history the way I did this time, at the Bernauer Strasse memorial during 2018.

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Poles mark where the Wall once stood at Bernauer Strasse

Here’s a little background information. The Wall, built in August of 1961, divided East and West Berlin until October of 1989. Some 156.4 kilometers of Wall bordered West Berlin and consisted of concrete walls lined with pipes at the top. There were 186 observation towers and 20 bunkers plus fences built 100 meters from the Wall. The area between the metal mesh fence and concrete wall was a clearing called the death strip, and border guards had a clear view of anyone trying to cross it. The Wall area also included signal fencing, trenches to deter vehicles from trying to cross, barbed wire and beds of nails under balconies of apartments over the death strip.

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Sculpture at the Chapel of Reconciliation

One reason I had a different perspective during 2018 was because I had spent more than 20 years living in Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic. I had scores of friends who told me harrowing stories of life under Communism – about the physical hardships and especially about the mental hardships of having one’s life inundated with the Communist ideology day in and day out. Looking at that small section of the Berlin Wall and the posts that marked where it had continued up and down Bernauer Strasse, I felt almost as if I knew the pain and anguish of the East Berliners, even though I had grown up in middle class America as a spoiled only child. This time, I could feel the history, and it seeped through my body, almost making me nauseous from my thoughts of life in East Berlin, behind that Wall, where now a group of teenagers gathered as they studied their mobile phones, seemingly oblivious to their surroundings, as if the Wall were nothing more than a wall.

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Another reason the memorial affected me so strongly was the poignancy of the exhibition about the Wall in the Documentation Center. It featured stories of individuals who had tried to escape, worked as escape helpers or served as informers for the secret police. I looked into each face, read each name and felt as if I had met each person.

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Postcard of the Berlin Wall around the Brandenburg Gate

There was Siegfried Uhse, a hairdresser who had resided in the West area of the city since 1960. He became an informant a year later. By pretending to look for an escape route for his girlfriend and her family, he was able to contact escape helpers who believed his lies. Because of Siegfried, five escape tunnels were betrayed from 1961 to 1963. Because of Siegfried, 89 refugees and escape helpers were arrested. Despite all the bad things that had happened in the world during my lifetime, it still amazed me that someone could do something so evil.

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Photo of a line for food in the DDR from exhibition at Documentation Center

One of those arrested was Harry Seidel, a racing cyclist who could not participate in the 1960 Olympics because he lived in East Germany. He made it to West Berlin and even got his wife and baby out as well. Then he wanted to help others gain the same feeling of freedom he was able to experience. He dug escape tunnels in 1962. Once he was almost ambushed; it was a close call, but he made it. However, in November of 1962 he was not so lucky. It was a trap. The secret police were waiting for him at an escape tunnel because of Siegfried’s intel. He was sentenced to life in prison. Before his arrest, he had helped 100 people flee to the West. That, I mused, was what real heroes were made of.

I also learned about Hartmut Richter, a railroad worker who tried to escape in 1965. His hopes were dashed, though, and he was convicted with a suspended sentence. In 1966, he did succeed in escaping. From 1971 to 1975, he was an escape helper. Then, in 1975, he was caught and received a 15-year prison sentence. He only served five years in jail, though, as West Germany paid ransom for his release during 1980.

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A watchtower at the Wall

I also learned about an escape attempt at the Invalidenstrasse border crossing – I had walked down that bustling street on the way to Bernauer Strasse. Eight young Berliners tried to drive a bus through the border. Fate was not kind to them. They were gravely injured by the 138 shots fired by border guards and arrested. They all spent many years in prison.

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Postcard showing the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 10, 1989 near Brandenburg Gate

I read about the VW Beetle that drove at top speed through the barbed wire fence erected on the first day the wall was built, August 13, 1961. It stopped in West Berlin, and the driver was free to open a new, exciting chapter in his life.

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The Chapel of Reconciliation

Residents of Bernauer Strasse had been very innovative in their escape attempts. Some had jumped into rescue nets of fire engines from West Berlin after making calls to the fire department, others had jumped from their roofs to the West, and still others had slid down ropes from their apartments on the border.

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Postcard showing the fall of the Berlin Wall, November 10, 1989

I saw remnants of the inner wall with green area behind it, a place where youngsters leisurely kicked a soccer ball. I imagined a guard in the watchtower being ready to fire on anyone trying to make a dash for it through No Man’s Land, which afforded the border guards a clear line of fire. I could imagine patrol cars driving by and anti-vehicle trenches preventing cars from crossing. I could almost hear the fierce barking of the dogs, their teeth barred, as they spotted a refugee in the border area.

 

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Interior of the Chapel of Reconciliation

I remembered watching American President Ronald Reagan speaking at the Brandenburg Gate, commemorating the 750th anniversary of Berlin, on June 12, 1987 and declaring, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” I had just graduated from prep school and took the concepts of freedom and democracy for granted. I hadn’t been interested in my Czech and Slovak roots back then. I had never thought about life behind the Iron Curtain. That was some mysterious place I was sure I would never go.

I did not stay as long as I had hoped at the memorial because I began to feel sick as I tried to put myself in the shoes of those East Berliners who had dreamed of freedom. I wound up retreating to a museum in the city center. I hope to go back to the Berlin Wall Memorial and spend more time there on a future visit. There is a lot of history to soak in, and one visit does not do the place justice.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

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Section of Berlin Wall in Museum of German History

 

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Bode Museum Diary

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Inaugurated in 1904 as the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum, the building was designed by Ernst Eberhard von Ihne, and construction lasted seven years. In 1956, the museum got its current name, in honor of the first director, William Bode, whose trademark was showcasing a variety of artworks – sculpture, painting, coins, medals, crafts. Indeed, what I liked best about the Bode was the variety – the sculptures, paintings and crafts all mixed together, sometimes even in one room. The collections were full of surprises that made me enthusiastic about each work I came across.

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I especially liked the sculpture collection. The medieval sculptures moved me the most. The large triptychs were overwhelmingly beautiful. Byzantine art played a major role in the collections. The art from Ravenna reminded me of my trip there as I had been dazzled by mastery of the works there. One of the largest collections of sculpture in the world, the pieces date from early medieval times to the late 18th century. Donatello, Lorenzo Bernini, Giovanni Pisano – they were just a few of the creators represented in this unbelievable array of artistry. Architectural sculpture included a Romanesque tribune from Germany. Glazed terracotta was also on display as were small sculptural works from bronze, alabaster and ivory. I also saw mosaic icons and artifacts from Egypt. The museum itself was a work of art with fireplaces and rich decoration hailing from the Italian Renaissance.

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I was intrigued by one display in particular. I learned that the artworks from this museum had been stored in a bunker in Berlin-Firedrichshain during World War II, but a fire broke out in May of 1945, destroying many of the sculptures. I imagined furious flames engulfing so many precious works of art and thought how formidable the collection would have been with even more dazzling sculptures. It was a great loss, for sure.

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I was in awe as I took in all the artifacts from Roman sarcophagi to silver sculpture to Byzantine works from Italy and Turkey to German Late Gothic sculptures. The mixture of different kinds of art from various periods gave the museum a dynamic quality and unique character.

Tracy Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

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The Pergamon Museum Diary

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The Ishtar Gate

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Built from 1910 to 1930, the Pergamon Museum on Berlin’s Museum Island is one of the most visited museums in the country. One of its highlights, the Pergamon Altar, is closed for a lengthy period. Still, there’s a lot to see.

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The Market Gate of Miletus

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I especially was enthused by the Ishtar Gate in that dynamic blue color. Originally located in Babylon, it hails from 575 BC. The Market Gate of Miletus, dating from 2 AD, also overwhelmed me. I was very impressed with the wide range of Islamic art, too.

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The Aleppo Room

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My favorite exhibit is the Aleppo Room, a richly adorned red reception room from a house in that city. I had only seen pictures of present day Aleppo in ruins. It was difficult to imagine that something so beautiful had once stood in that city. I realized it was once a city of grandeur, though now, unfortunately, reduced to rubble. I felt the tragedy of the war deeply. Before, I had become almost numb to it, seeing so many pictures of the ruins on TV so many times. The exhibit made the war real, way too real.

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I was also intrigued by the museum’s history. It was damaged during World War II, and, shortly afterwards, Russian soldiers took most of the items in the collection back to Russia. Most of it was returned in 1958 – yes, it took that long!, – but some of the objects are still in Russia. They are on display in St. Petersburg and Moscow.

Tracy A. Burns is a proofreader, writer and editor in Prague.

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The Old National Gallery in Berlin Diary

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One of my favorite museums in Berlin, the Old National Gallery has the shape of a temple from antiquity, which appealed to me. The museum opened in 1876. While it suffered damage during World War II, it was renovated and opened again in 1949. From 1998 to 2001 it underwent modern reconstruction.

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I was so impressed with the collection collection of 19th century art, which ranges in style from NeoClassicist, Romantic to Impressionist. Because Impressionism is my favorite period, I was most struck by the paintings of that era, specifically by the works of Monet. I also admired paintings by Manet and Renoir. The museum also is home to the largest collection of paintings by Adolph Menzel, who I had not heard of previously.

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While I was visiting in 2018, there was a fantastic temporary exhibition called Wanderlust. It featured 19th century paintings of landscapes with travelers on foot. I had become a much stronger person from traveling alone, and it reminded me of all my solitary journeys to places unknown. The paintings could represent a person’s journey through life.

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From Wanderlust exhibition

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From Wanderlust exhibition

I was particularly enamored by the Italian settings of Naples and Sicily in several paintings. I thought back to my trips to those places as I had discovered many gems in Italy and would develop a love for Italy almost as strong as my passion for the Czech Republic.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

From Permanent Exhibition

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Wanderlust Temporary Exhibition

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My favorite painting in the temporary exhibition

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Leipzig Diary

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A fountain in Leipzig

When I saw that arsviva offered a day trip to Leipzig, I jumped at the opportunity. I had no idea what to expect, but I had enjoyed their day trips to other places in Germany, such as Nuremberg and Bamberg. Besides, our guide would be one of the best I had come across. With a specialty in architecture, she also had led the thrilling tours of Jan Blažej Santini-Aichel’s creations.

There were many things that awed me about Leipzig. The first and foremost, was, indeed, the architecture – how the modern and historical styles did not clash but rather provided a sort of artistic harmony.

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A contemporary statue in downtown Leipzig

The guide told us about the history of the city, and I had read about Leipzig’s trials and tribulations before the trip. During the seventh century, Leipzig got its name from the Slavic Lipsk, which means “a settlement where the linden trees stand.” The town was first mentioned in writing during 1015. It was founded in 1165, soon gaining a reputation as a trade center. The beginning of the 15th century changed the character of Leipzig, as a university was established here, and it became a prominent center of higher education. Goethe and Nietzsche had studied here.

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A beautiful book published in Leipzig

The Leipzig Book Fair, the second biggest book fair in Germany, has its origins in the 17th century. Book publishing took off in Leipzig during the 18th century and continued to play a major role until World War II, when the Graphic Quarter was mostly destroyed by bombs. The Battle of Nations in the 19th century took place near Leipzig. The 1813 ordeal pitted Napoleon’s France against the Prussians, Austrians, Russians and Swedes. The allied nations came through victorious, and Napoleon had no choice but to leave Germany. We would visit this monument later in the day.

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This painting from the Museum of City History shows the destruction during World War II.

The city became part of the German Empire in 1871, and the years before World War I were rosy. Then, after the war, the Weimar Republic was established, though short-lived. In 1933 the National Socialists took over, and Hitler’s reign of terror would continue until the US army freed the city on April 18, 1945. Then in July of that year, the Americans handed the city over to the Soviets. The totalitarian regime that was called the German Democratic Republic or East Germany existed from 1949 to 1989, when Communism was defeated in Germany in part thanks to the citizens of Leipzig and their demonstrations. Today more than 40,000 students vie for degrees in Leipzig, a truly university town. Leipzig was coined the “City of Diversity” by the German government in 2008.

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Gothic and modern architecture in a university building

The Augustusplatz, spanning 40,000 square meters, was a wonder in itself. The Gewandhaus, where the symphony played, and the Opera House took me by surprise, as I usually was not so enthralled with modern architecture. I took special note of the Paulinum, where the current structure resembled a former church that was destroyed by the Communists on this site in 1968. The 2012 creation really brought a sense of unity to modern and historical styles.

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The first high-rise in Leipzig

I also was enthralled with the first high-rise building in Leipzig, an 11-storey edifice constructed in the 1920s. Its design was inspired by the clock tower at St. Mark’s Square in my beloved Venice. For a moment, I mentally went eight years back in time and recalled winding through the empty, romantic streets of Venice on a Sunday at seven o’clock in the morning. The experience was magical, to say the least. In the present again: The tall Leipzig building was topped with a ball that showed the phases of the moon and a sculpture of a man ringing a bell. The German words for “Work overcomes everything” stood out on a gable.

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From the Museum of City History exhibition of the modern era

We also spent some time in the train station. No, we were not going anywhere by train, but rather we were admiring the masterful technical achievement that consisted of two entrance halls and two waiting rooms plus 25 platforms. In the early 20th century, this transportation hub ranked as the largest main train station in Europe after the architects transformed four stations into one. It made Prague’s main station look so tiny. I always felt a sense of excitement in train stations. I thought of the many trips I had taken by train. Prague’s train stations were starting points for what turned out to be superb experiences during which I became acquainted with an intriguing part of the country and also, most importantly, got to know myself better. The trips to Olomouc, Liberec, Turnov –  each journey provided me with insights about the external landscape as well as the internal landscape of my mind.

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A postcard of the Church of St. Nicholas

Unfortunately, it was not possible to take photos in the Church of St. Nicholas, the largest church in Leipzig. I tried to imagine October of 1989 in the church, when citizens crammed inside, protesting against the totalitarian regime and creating a path for democracy. The people of Leipzig really had made a difference in the so-called Peaceful Revolution, and this had been where it all began. On Mondays, ever since the early 1980s, prayers for peace were held here, too. I wondered when there would be peace in the world, if ever. So many tragedies, so much violence rocks the world today. The world was the most dangerous it had been during my 46 years on this earth, I mused. And it only seemed to be getting more and more dangerous day-by-day.

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From a postcard of the Church of St. Nicholas

I admired the architecture of the impressive church. Although originally constructed in Romanesque style during the 12th century, it was transformed into a Late Gothic structure boasting three naves during the first quarter of the 16th century. Three steeples boast Baroque decoration. Now the prevailing style of the interior is classicist, a characteristic that the church took on in the late 18th century. I loved the palm tree capitals on the stately columns most of all, especially the pink and green colors. The pillars made the church appear even more lively. It was not just an architectural masterpiece with a past, but it felt like a masterful design with a present, too. I tried to imagine Bach performing here, as he has served as organist from 1723 to 1750. I tried to imagine Martin Luther preaching here as churchgoers became familiar with the Reformation. It was a profound experience, standing there, gazing at the gem of an interior.

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The Church of St. Thomas

You could not miss the Bach monument in front of the Church of St. Thomas, which was constructed in 1212 as a monastery church for Augustinians. By 1355 the Romanesque structure had been transformed into Gothic style. Now it has a Late Gothic character with a late 15th century appearance. Real hair adorns Jesus’ head on a 16th century crucifix. The church holds the distinction of having one of the steepest gable roofs in the country.

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The ceiling of the Church of St. Thomas

The interior got a Neo-Gothic makeover during the revolutionary years of 1848 and 1849. Still, there were elements of the church that were much older than that. I saw a triptych altar from the 15th century, for instance, and even some Romanesque traits remain on the exterior. I especially liked the stained glass windows. Many people come here to pay homage to Bach, who worked as cantor here from 1723 to 1750. His grave is located in the choir.

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The stained glass windows at the Church of St. Thomas were extraordinary.

We also saw a modern church, built only several years ago. The interior was so sparse and minimalistic. There was a large wooden cross on one wall, and on the opposite wall another big cross was made of glass. I preferred Baroque and Gothic churches, definitely, but there was a profound sense of harmony in its simplicity. It ranked as an architectural gem in my book, though it was not my preferred style. There was something special about seeing this space stripped of frivolous decoration.

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Built from 1899 to 1905, the New Town Hall was another gem, purposefully reminiscent of Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio. With an area of 10,000 square meters, it is one of the biggest town halls in the world. The tower reaches a height of 1,147 meters, making it the highest town hall tower in Germany. It was a pity there was not more time to spend examining this building, but we had a lot to see. The town hall fountain featuring creatures from fairy tales and a figure of a young boy playing a flute was a gem.

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The New Town Hall

I was drawn to Klingerhaus, the birthplace of the 19th century Symbolist painter, sculptor and writer Max Klinger. I did not know much about Klinger, except that he had been influenced by Goya’s art. I recalled gazing in awe at Goya’s paintings in the Prado and at the artist’s drawings in the small, quaint contemporary art museum in Passau. I liked the Renaissance architecture of the building. I was particularly enthralled with the red gables and oriels that made the building look so dynamic.

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Klingerhaus

We walked by Auerbach’s Cellar, a tavern Goethe had frequented and the inspiration for a scene in Faust. We went into the Mädler Passage, an arcade building that reminded me of another arcade structure in Naples. It was modeled after the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan from 1912 to 1914 and boasted a central rotunda. A Glockenspiel of Meissen china charmed audiences on the hour.

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The Old Town Hall

I ate a hearty lunch in a narrow Baroque court teeming with restaurants and cafés – there were over 30 of them, in fact. Then I made my way to the Old Town Hall across the square. The first Renaissance hall in Germany, it was constructed in 1556. It was heavily damaged by bombing during World War II but rebuilt. The city administration worked here until 1905, and soon afterwards the Museum of City History opened in the impressive space. Shops were situated amidst the lovely arcades. I loved the gables and tower clock.

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The interior of the Old Town Hall

At the Museum of City History, I learned that the history of Leipzig is, in effect, the history of Germany and former East Germany. A remarkable exhibition of modern history from the revolutionary years of 1848-49 to the present enthralled me. Rarely have I been so enlightened and moved by an exhibition. Citizens were not satisfied with the political situation in 1848 and revolted, hoping to gain a constitution for Germany, among other goals. But it was not to be. The city became a central point for the German labor movement, German social democracy and women’s movement from the 1850s to 1871, when the German Empire was founded. Jewish fur traders flocked to the city, and their businesses flourished. Indeed, before World War I Leipzig was thriving.

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The interior of the Old Town Hall

From 1918 to 1933 Leipzig found itself in the Weimar Republic, an era that had to deal with the political and economic issues that followed the war. Yet Leipzig experienced the Roaring Twenties, and when things turned for the worst, the Great Depression of 1929. Then, in 1933, the National Socialists took control. The city was subject to much bombing during the war, and forced laborers toiled in the city during the war. US troops liberated Leipzig in April of 1945, but in July the Americans turned over the city to the Soviets. The German Democratic Republic was established in 1949, as Leipzig then became part of the totalitarian East Germany. Companies were nationalized, and cheaply built housing estates cropped up. Before the Berlin Wall was built in 1961, thousands of citizens escaped to the West. At the end of the 1980s, more inhabitants made it to the West. During the 40th anniversary of East Germany, the state employed violence to repress demonstrations. The Peaceful Revolution began on October 9, 1989, and the Leipzig protests would play a major role in the collapse of the Communist regime. In 1990, after 58 terror-ridden years led by dictators, democratic elections were held in Leipzig. There was much construction, and Leipzig earned the nickname “the Boomtown of the East.”

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From the Museum of City History exhibition about the modern era

The exhibition also focused on book publishing in Leipzig, which played a major role from the 18th century up to World War II. Until 1945, the biggest book fair in the world took place in Leipzig, and now the city hosts the second largest book fair in Germany. The exhibition also concentrated on Leipzig as a city of music, mentioning Bach, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Grieg, Wagner and others who greatly influenced the town.

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From the Museum of City History exhibition of the modern era

There were many places in Leipzig that I did not have time to explore. For instance, I would have loved to have visited the museums in the former houses of Mendelssohn and Schumann. I longed to see the richly decorated facades of buildings on the Brühl, where, at the turn of the 20th century, 700 fur companies had been located. I would like to linger in the Baroque Coffee Baum, where famous musicians had once gathered. The Memorial Museum, at the site of the former State Security forces, would certainly allow insights into the terror-ridden years as part of East Germany.  There are other museums that I wanted to visit as well– the Grassi Museum of Applied Arts and the Museum of Fine Arts are just two examples.

During my day in Leipzig, I gained so much knowledge about life in the city and in Germany, especially from the middle of the 19th century to the present. I was won over by the architecture, both modern and historic. I left Leipzig, knowing I had to return in the not-so-distant future. Its strong impression will forever be stamped in my memory.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

Museum of City History in Leipzig Diary

While visiting Leipzig on a day trip, I spent nearly two hours in the Museum of City History, which documents the history of the city that was first mentioned in writing during 1015 and founded as a town in 1165. The museum is located in the first Renaissance hall in Germany, built in 1556. It functioned as the town hall until 1905. The Museum of City History has been housed there since 1909. There was a special exhibition called “Modern Times,” which dealt with 200 years of city history from the revolutionary years of 1848 and 1849 to 1995. I learned about the development of trade fairs, industrialization, life during the Weimar Republic with the Roaring Twenties and Great Depression of 1929, the history of publishing houses in the city, the Nazi regime during World War II, the nationalization of companies and founding of the German Democratic Republic in 1949, the role music played in the city, the 1989 demonstrations and the first free elections in 1990 after two dictatorial regimes that lasted 58 years. In many respects, the history of Leipzig was the history of Germany, and I was fascinated about life during the Weimar Republic and life during East Germany’s existence, for instance.

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Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

Herrenchiemsee Palace Diary

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I traveled to Herrenchiemsee on a full-day excursion offered by Gray Line in Munich, the city where I was staying. I had been so impressed with Neuschwanstein and Linderhof Palace that I longed to see more Bavarian castles. Herrenchiemsee’s location on an island made it sound remote and romantic.
First, we took two boats to the Island of Fraueninsel, also called Frauenchiemsee or Ladies’ Island, a tranquil environment of 38.8 acres with 300 inhabitants and no crowds. The church with the distinctive onion-shaped tower was constructed in the 11th or 12th century during Romanesque times. The archway around the door dated back to that era. Romanesque frescoes inside the church hailed from 1130. The interior also included Gothic and Baroque characteristics. During the 14th century the flat wooden ceilings of the three naves were changed into star-shaped and net rib vaulting. A new high altar was added during the Gothic period as well.

Even though fires broke out in the convent during 1491 and 1572, the damage was mostly confined to the exterior of the building. Two Renaissance altars were built in the 17th century. The Gothic altars were transformed into Baroque creations during the 17th century as well.

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Church interior on Ladies’ Island

The church has three naves, nine bays and 11 altars. There is a gallery with heavy Romanesque groin vaults. The round arched arcades are situated on rectangular pillars. The half columns have no capitals or plinths as well. The aisles of the main nave boast star-shaped rib vaults. The sacristy features Late Gothic vaulting and is two stories high. The altar stones are Late Gothic, but the altars’ upper structures are all Baroque in style. The high altar is High Baroque, created in 1694. In the middle of the 19th century the original altar was taken away, and a painting of The Risen Christ Appearing to His Mother replaced it. The upper part shows the crowning of the Virgin Mary. Saint Benedict, Saint John the Baptist and Saint George are a few of the holy characters who make appearances on the high altarpiece.

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An altar in the church on Fraueninsel

We did not go inside the monastery, but I knew it had been founded by Bavarian Duke Tassillo III in the 8th century, making it the oldest monastery in Bavaria. In 830 about 45 nuns lived in a convent on the premises. Perhaps the monastery’s most famous abbess was Irmingard, a great-granddaughter of Charlemagne, living in the 9th century. A reliquary of the abbess’ remains is located in the church. Her life is still celebrated on the island. The convent holds the distinction of being the oldest still existing convent in Germany. As of 2007, about 30 sisters resided in the monastery.

A picturesque cottage on Ladies' Island

A picturesque cottage on Ladies’ Island

We also saw the picturesque cottages on the island and the fishmongers’ stands. The island was so serene. It made me feel at peace with myself and with the world. I felt as though I could accept the joys plus the hardships life had thrown my way. I had a strong feeling of self-acceptance. If only I could take strolls around this island every day, my life would be so much more balanced and much less stressful!

A statue adorning a fountain in the garden

A statue adorning a fountain in the garden

Then we took another boat to the New Palace and Old Palace of Herrenchiemsee. Tourists, notably absent from the Ladies’ Island, had flocked to the New Palace. Created for “mad” King Ludwig II, Herrenchiemsee’s New Palace is a copy of Versailles, though it does differ in some respects.

A statue decorating a fountain in the garden

A statue decorating a fountain in the garden

King Ludwig II created his own fantasy world because he was dismayed that he could not be an absolute monarch. Ludwig II could not accept his royal post in a constitutional monarchy. He idolized French King Louis XIV, who led France for 72 years as the most powerful decision-maker in that realm. Soon after Ludwig became king, the government experienced a financial crisis, and Ludwig II withdrew from society, hiding in his own special, imaginative realm.

A fountain at Herrenchiemsee Palace

A fountain at Herrenchiemsee Palace

Very few of the interior furnishings of Versailles were original; they had been destroyed during the revolutions of 1789 and 1848. Therefore, Ludwig II could not make replicas of the authentic interiors of Versailles. He traveled to Versailles on two occasions. Construction began on his new rendition of Versailles in May of 1878. (King Ludwig II would die under mysterious circumstances on June 13, 1886.)
First, I visited the ornate garden. The fountains with stunning statuary impressed me as did the parterre with ponds. I saw marble statues of animals, of gods Diana and Venus and of Fata and Fortuna. Curiously enough, the garden was not an exact replica of that in Versailles. In fact, the statues of Fata and Fortuna had been greatly influenced by the gardens at the Spanish royal palace of San Ildefonso, Segovia.

The Latona Fountain in the garden of Herrenchiemsee

The Latona Fountain in the garden of Herrenchiemsee

The Latona Fountain is based on the fountain at Versailles, though. Latona, who had given birth to Apollo and Diana, stood proudly in the center of the fountain. Below her were the farmers she had turned into frogs plus tortoises and toads. After giving birth to Apollo and Diana, Latona wandered around the land. She came upon a pond and was very thirsty. However, the farmers would not let her drink from the pond. So, she changed them into frogs. I loved the sculptures of the frogs and tortoises. The figures of the animals seemed so playful rather than merely majestic. They brought a smile to my face.

The New Palace from the garden

The New Palace from the garden

Then came the tour of the New Palace. The guide explained that there is nothing Bavarian in the palace. Everything was inspired by Louis XIV or Louis XV. We walked up a grandiose staircase that was a replica of the one at Versailles, the version that was destroyed in France during 1752. Stucco marble and statues, paintings, a crystal chandelier and a marble fountain showing Diana with two nymphs all added to the grandeur. However, there was an intriguing 19th century element – a glass roof that somehow complemented the classical characteristics. I was surprised that the skylight did not look out-of-place or mar the elegance of the staircase.

The parterre in the garden

The parterre in the garden

In the Bodyguard Room I saw copies of halberds from Versailles. The ceiling fresco boasted a mythological theme, showing the triumph of Mars as the god peers at a burning city while gripping a white-and-red flag. Stucco marble paneling gave the room a sort of charm. Notably, no guards had ever been stationed in the Bodyguard Room.
In the First Antechamber the white and gold paneling was stunning. The ceiling painting glorified Bacchus and Ceres, who was the goddess of agriculture and fertility, among other things. I was fascinated by the Cornet Cabinet made with the Boullete technique, which was a French way of sculpting. The cabinet was inlaid with dark brown tortoiseshell and showed off gilt bronze figures. The professional and eloquent guide opened the cabinet. I expected to see some ornate jewels inside. However, it was empty because King Ludwig II had never said what he wanted to store there.

The parterre in the garden

A beautiful fountain in the garden

The Second Antechamber included large bureaus, and the chandeliers seemed to enlarge the size of the room in a mirroring effect. Overall, there were 50 chandeliers in the palace, made of Bohemian lead crystal and gilded bronze. A bronze statue showed King Louis XIV on horseback. I was enamored by the detail of the horse’s mane and the riding boots. The draperies astounded with green silk and golden embroidery.
The State Bed Chamber was not a copy of the one at Versailles. It was, in fact, much more lavish than its French counterpart. The space featured a gold leaf gilded bed. Red velvet carpet with designs of suns covered the steps leading up to the bed. How I would like to sleep there! The red velvet textiles were made utilizing needlework and gold embroidering and boasted scenes of Venus and Cupid. However, King Ludwig II never slept there. He intended it to be only a copy of Versailles, not his personal bedroom.

The lavish State  Bedroom at Herrenchiemsee

The lavish State Bedroom at Herrenchiemsee

A life-size portrait of Louis XIV graced the Council Chamber or Conference Hall, carved in gold and white paneling. The Bourbon lily design was displayed on the carpet and curtains. The largest clock in the palace was in the room, too. There was at least one clock in every room in the palace. This particular clock, made with inlaid rosewood designs and gild bronze fittings, had been constructed for King Louis XIV. The ceiling painting portrayed the gods at Olympus. I took note of the white horses rearing up as though they were frightened of something.

The Conference Room

The Conference Hall

The Hall of Mirrors was impressive as well. The Hall of Peace and the Hall of War were copies from Versailles. They were overwhelming. Some 2,200 candles were in the rooms. It had taken 30 to 40 servants to light them. The space also featured 35 chandeliers. The ceiling frescoes were stunning, copies of frescoes from Versailles showing battles with the French in the Spanish Netherlands, which resulted in a peace treaty during 1678. Both the Hall of Peace and Hall of War were decorated in stucco marble of various hues, and each hall boasted the busts of four Roman emperors. The halls there measured in total 98 meters in length. They were six meters longer than the ones in Versailles.

The Hall of Mirrors

The Hall of Mirrors

Next we saw the private apartments built in the style of King Louis XV, but not totally faithful to the rooms at Versailles. The Second Rococo style of the rooms had been influenced by 18th century French and German palaces. King Ludwig II actually lived there from September 7 to September 16, 1885.

The Bedroom was decorated in blue, King Ludwig’s favorite color. I recalled that the elegant bedroom in Neuschwanstein was also decorated in this color. The bed was two meters and 40 centimeters long with a width of one meter and 80 centimeters. (Ludwig II stood one meter and 93 centimeters tall.) Statues of Venus and Adonis also featured prominently in the room. The ceiling painting dealt with mythological figures. When candles had been lit in this space, the blue globe light resembled moonlight. What an atmosphere that must have been! The space featured two secret doors as well.

A bedroom in the palace

A bedroom in the palace

The King’s Study was dedicated to Louis XV. I was enamored by the 1884 roll-top desk that was a replica of a desk that Louis XV had owned. How I would love to compose pieces on that! It was the most valuable piece of furniture in the palace, inlaid with 16 kinds of wood. Two astronomical clocks decorated the room. A half-ton chandelier was on display, too. Green velvet curtains showed off gold embroidery.

The captivating Meissen chandelier

The captivating Meissen chandelier

The King’s Dining Room featured the most expensive chandelier and floral décor. The 18-armed Meissen chandelier was breathtaking. It showed off flower buds in various colors and tiny birds. The chandelier had been assembled in the room from small pieces. It was one of the most original chandeliers I had ever seen. Below it were white flowers in a vase made of porcelain.

King Ludwig II of Bavaria

King Ludwig II of Bavaria

The table was called a “Tischlein-deck-dich.” It could be lowered when servants needed to set it and then could be hoisted back up, so Ludwig II could dine alone without servants interrupting him. It reminded me of a similar sort of table at Linderhof Palace. White and gold paneling added to the room’s opulence. A porcelain cabinet in the corner of the room also proved intriguing. This space had taken its look from a room in the Hotel de Soubise in Paris.
Overall, King Ludwig II had planned for there to be 70 rooms in the palace, but only 50 rooms had been completed. The king’s private entrance was unfinished, too. I could hardly imagine the grandeur that would have pervaded if King Ludwig II had been able to build all 70 spaces.

Hadrian's Villa near Rome

Hadrian’s Villa near Rome

During the tour I thought back to my visit to Hadrian’s Villa in what is today Tivoli near Rome. Emperor Hadrian’s immense villa had imitated places and locations around the empire that he had liked the most. For example, there was a copy of the Nile at its estuary, two Greek valleys, several Athenian sites. In total, there had been 30 buildings, including temples, palaces, a theatre and libraries. I thought about how the architecture reflected his inner turmoil and how Herrrenchiemsee, Neuschwanstein and Linderhof Palace reflected Ludwig II’s troubles.

Hadrian's Villa

Hadrian’s Villa

Next I visited the Ludwig II Museum in the palace. In this museum I saw some intriguing artifacts. I was impressed with the long, blood red with silver trim wedding robes made for King Ludwig II and Sophie, Duchess of Bavaria. I could imagine them clad in those lavish robes if they had actually got married. Ludwig’s death mask was on display, too.
In the portrait of Ludwig as Grand Master of the Order of Knights of Saint George, the “mad” king looked devilish, angry even. Perhaps he had just been reminded that he would never have absolute rule in his kingdom. In the picture he was clutching a scabbard with one white-gloved hand.

A colorful tiled stove at Neuschwanstein Castle

A colorful tiled stove at Neuschwanstein Castle

I also spotted a tiled stove in playful, cheery colors. The stove was decorated in a mixture of green with yellow as well as gray with red and had been originally placed at Neuschwanstein, where I had set eyes on a similar tiled stove. I saw other ornate Meissen vases and sculpture as well. The models of stage sets exhibited Ludwig II’s passion for Richard Wagner’s music. In fact, there were many artifacts from Neuschwanstein and Linderhof Palace. One room boasted the original furniture from a bedroom at Linderhof. The original boat from Ludwig II’s winter garden that had been situated on the roof of the Residence Palace in Munich was on display, too.

A young King Ludwig II of Bavaria

A young King Ludwig II of Bavaria

Lastly, I visited the Old Palace – the Augustinian Monastery that was founded around 1125. The current monastery buildings dated from the Baroque period, though. The complex consisted of four wings with an almost rectangular courtyard and rose garden. Perhaps it was best known as the setting for the drafting of Germany’s new constitution in 1948, paving the way for Germany’s identity as a republic. Now there is a history museum dealing with the constitution on the premises, but all the placards were in German, so I did not understand it.

The Baroque hall in the Old Palace

The Baroque hall in the Old Palace

My favorite room was covered in Baroque frescoes, an array of dynamic figures in bright colors. Another space was Ludwig II’s Study with intriguing furnishings. While it did not compare to the New Palace in grandeur, the Old Palace had a welcome sense of simplicity and a variety of objects and furnishings on display, not adhering to one, specific theme.
I took a break and sat outside on that beautiful, sunny day and drank some water. There was no doubt about it. Herrenchiemsee was one of my favorite palaces (or castles, as it is often called) though I liked the romantic, 19th century Gothic style of Neuschwanstein even better. Herrenchiemsee definitely ranked up there with Czech castles and chateaus. I was overwhelmed by the beauty and elegance of the palace. I was very satisfied with the tour guide that led our group through numerous rooms. The articulate guide had spoken perfect English and had described each room with contagious enthusiasm. In fact, all the guides that had showed me Bavarian castles and palaces had been excellent, giving vivid descriptions and pointing out intriguing details.

My favorite Bavarian castle - Neuschwanstein

My favorite Bavarian castle – Neuschwanstein

The garden was outstanding, too, with fountains and sculptural decoration that enthralled me. The parterre was stunning as well. I could sit on a bench in this garden all day and read a good book, often gazing around me at the remarkable, calming scenery. I loved those tortoises and frog figures on the Latona Fountain most of all.
The magic of Herrenchiemsee would stay in my mind forever. Versailles had been so crowded when I visited some years ago on one unusually warm February day. It had not been possible to soak up the atmosphere with a throng of tourists elbowing me for positions to take the best photo. During the tour of Herrenchiemsee, I was able to appreciate the elegance of the rooms without fighting my way through crowds as there was only a fixed number of people allowed on each tour.

King Ludwig II of Bavaria

King Ludwig II of Bavaria

The mysterious circumstances of Ludwig II’s death came to my mind as we waited for a boat to take us back to the bus. On trial on June 8, 1886, the king was declared mentally ill and legally incompetent to rule. The statements for his defense were not taken into consideration. His death was mysterious. It seemed to jump out of a Sherlock Holmes whodunit. Five days after hearing the verdict, Ludwig took a walk with his doctor. He did not have any of his guards accompany them. What happened next? Nobody knows. Later both bodies were found in the water. The mystery may never be solved as the Wittelsbach clan will not allow Ludwig II’s corpse to be exhumed.

 

The New Palace from the Latona Fountain

The New Palace from the Latona Fountain

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.