Monday, 28 October 2013

Germany's Jews - 75 years after Reichskristallnacht

I was walking through an U-Bahn station in Berlin last week and I saw a copy of "Jüdische Allgemeine" (you can translate it as "Jewish Weekly" if you like) on a completely regular subway newsstand.  It's a far cry from the situation almost exactly 75 years ago in Germany, when on 9 November 1938 the state organised pogrom known as Reichskristallnacht took place.  I don't think too many people are aware of the position (or even existence!) of the Jewish community in Germany today.  The combination of this anniversary and my seeing that paper have therefore prompted this post.

Winding the Clock Back

Let's wind the clock back, a little bit further than Reichskristallnacht, and go back 80 years, to 1933.  The German Jewish community stood at 505,000 at the time of the June 1933 census, a few months after the Nazis had come into power.

It's often not realised quite how small a percentage of the entire German population that the Jews made up: just 0.75%.  That's not vastly different to the percentage of Jews in the UK today, which at 292,000 is estimated to be around 0.47% of the general population.  In both cases, these are really small numbers and it's worth reflecting on that.  The Nazis were obsessed with the "Jewish Question" and the influence of this tiny group of people on German society.

The German Jewish population in the years leading up to 1933 was small, then, but it was also highly integrated, generally secure and confident.  It had been in Germany for 1600 years: the country has one of the longest and richest Jewish traditions and history in Europe.  The traditional language of many European Jews was Yiddish: a High German dialect.  Many American Jews of course still carry German surnames: the Morgensterns, Silberbergs and Rosenthals came from Germany, via Poland or Russia, and on to the US.

There's no doubt that when most people think of the words German and Jewish they inevitably start at the end, with the unique and murderous catastrophe of the holocaust.  If you want a different perspective, I can highly recommend Amos Elon's "The Pity of it All" which beautifully describes the 150 year history of the Jews in Germany from 1743 to 1933.  Elon writes about a period of successful integration and individual achievement that produced a genuine Golden Age that peaked shortly before the coming to power of the Nazis.  He does not see what came next as inevitable by any means, and rejects the view that the German anti-Semitism which began with Martin Luther's vicious Jew-hating tracts had to end up in Auschwitz.  He convincingly sets out how the fate of Germany's Jews was uncertain until the end.  It could have gone differently.


Jews rapidly left Germany as the Nazis' grip on power intensified.  The boycotts, racial laws and increased persecution led to a flood of people leaving.  Over 300,000 left during the 30s, which meant that "only" around 36% of Germany's original Jewish population was eventually murdered in the holocaust.  Other countries, such as the Netherlands, who were not able to flee in the same way because by then the War had started, suffered up to 90% murder rates of their Jewish populations.

A major impetus for German Jews' leaving the country was the pogrom of 9 November 1938.  It's that anniversary that is approaching: 75 years ago.   In August 1938 Germany had announced that all residence permits of foreigners would be cancelled.  These included a sizeable number of Polish born Jews, who were faced with going back to Poland.  Germany forcibly expelled 12,000 of them on 28 October 1938 and shipped them off to the border in one night.  At the border, 8000 were refused entry to Poland.  They were made to live in temporary camps in the bitter cold and rain in no-man's land.

17 year old Herschel: an unlikely killer

Two of the deportees were Sendel and Riva Grynszpan, whose 17 year old son, Herschel, was living in Paris.  In desperation at their fate, on 7 November Herschel rang the bell of the German embassy to France.  The person who answered the door was an aristocratic career diplomat, Ernst vom Rath, who happened to be under investigation by the Gestapo for his anti-Nazi sympathies.  Herschel shot him repeatedly.  On 9 November he died. 

In response to the assassination, Goebbels sent out his famous message to all local Nazi party leaders from the Altes Rathaus in Munich that "the Führer has decided that... demonstrations should not be prepared or organized by the party, but insofar as they erupt spontaneously, they are not to be hampered."  The message was clear that local party branches should attack German Jewish targets.  They did so with a passion: over 1000 synagogues were burnt down across the country (many of them ancient, beautiful buildings), 7000 Jewish businesses were attacked, 91 Jews were beaten to death, and 30,000 were rounded up and sent to concentration camps (many temporarily).  The foreign press looked on in horror: the Times wrote of attacks on defenceless, innocent people and the disgrace that had blackened Germany's name.  It was a modern day, organised pogrom without equal.

The location of the former Heidelberg Synagogue

The name "Kristallnacht" refers to the tonnes of smashed glass of the windows of synagogues and Jewish businesses.  Across Germany today, from the largest city to the smallest town you will find plaques marking the location of the destroyed synagogues.  In places like the pretty university town of Heidelberg the synagogue foundation stones have been preserved to preserve the indelible shame of that night.    To add insult to injury, the German Jewish community was fined 1 Billion Reichsmark (£3.5 billion at today's prices, or £17,500 per person) for the clean-up operation.  That night was what many historians regard as the beginning of the holocaust.  The indescribably brutal fate of the six million is well-known. 

Today's German Jewish Community

Immediately after the War, it's a little known fact that many Jews from across Europe took refuge in Germany.  This is perhaps counter-intuitive, but it's because the American and British occupied zones were safe havens where, unlike the hostility and sometimes violence that survivors faced when they returned home, they could pick up the fragments of their lives and plan their futures.

In Kielce, in Poland, for example, 42 Jewish holocaust survivors were stoned to death in a river on 4 July 1946, charged with the abduction of a Christian boy and medieval blood libel allegations.  For the few surviving Polish Jews this was the end of their future in the country, and they moved to the protection of the Allies in Germany, before heading off to new lives in the US or Palestine.

The swell in Jewish numbers in Germany was therefore temporary.  By 1989 the Jewish community of West Germany stood at around 30,000 - about 1/20th the size it had been in 1933.  In East Germany there were only a few hundred: most took the rare opportunity of emigration to Israel in the 1970s when it was offered to them.  Both communities were introspective, private, elderly and tended to be very private.

Then came Reunification in 1990, and the fall of the Soviet Union in 1992.  Germany opened its doors to Jewish immigration from the East once more.  In 2003 the Social Democratic chancellor, Schröder, signed an important and highly symbolic agreement with the German Jewish Central Council that placed Judaism on the same semi-established, elevated status as the Catholic and Lutheran Churches in Germany.  Also in 2003, ten new rabbis were ordained in Berlin: the first since WW2.  In 2006, the new rabbinical seminary in Potsdam ordained three reform rabbis: the first since 1942. 

Russian Jews with Yiddish surnames, whose families had started off in the Rhineland, and who had moved eastwards in the early Middle Ages, started to come "home".  The trickle became a flood.  The renaissance in Jewish life as a result, right across Germany, has been remarkable.  In a mere twenty years the Jewish population has grown around 300% to around 200,000.  There are 120,000 active, practising members of the faith.  Germany's is the fastest growing Jewish population in the world.  There's an annual net emigration from Israel to Germany, mainly because Germany is seen as a much safer place to live.  The irony of that fact is striking. 

Synagogues are opening up across the country, not just in the major urban centres of Berlin and Munich.  Hamelin, of Pied Piper fame, a small, sleepy town in northern central Germany, very close to where I grew up, has just opened the first new reform synagogue to be built in the country since well before the War.  Its Jewish population in 1933 was 153 members.  Now it stands at 200, which is the same level as at its heyday in 1880.  The new synagogue is on the exact location of the one destroyed on 9 November 1938.

The Ohel Jakob "New Main Synagogue" in Munich
The Jewish population of Munich is similarly back up at pre-Third Reich levels.  I visited one of the synagogues there with Harriet, an English Orthodox friend, a few years back.  She was blown away by the number of people attending on an ordinary Thursday night, and her reaction was a quiet and reflective "ultimately they didn't win, did they?"  Remember, this was in Munich, the capital of the Nazi movement: Hitler's favourite city.  I always take people to visit the magnificent New Synagogue there, which was opened on 9 November 2006.  The roof represents the tents used during the biblical flight from Egypt, and also reminds us of the original Temple in Jerusalem.  It is flooded with light inside.

Of course, not all is rosy.  There are xenophobic and anti-Semitic far-right attacks in Germany, as elsewhere in the world.  The difference is that here they automatically grab the world headlines, because people are so sensitive about them.  Attacks on synagogues or Jewish graveyards in France, a worryingly regular occurrence, don't have the same press impact, so don't make the headlines in quite the same way as any in Germany might.

Long May It Continue

Germany now has the third largest Jewish community in Europe again (after France and the UK).  Nothing can replace those who were murdered, or "make good" the harm of those 12 terrible years of the Third Reich.  But the fact that Jews are once again choosing to live in Germany (after all, they really don't have to) because it is considered a good, safe, stable place to bring up their children makes me, as a half-German, enormously proud.

This 9 November I shall, along with millions of others, reflect on the events of 75 years ago and what was to follow.  I shall also think about the present and the future of Jews in Germany, and how positive things once again look.  It is a testament to the efforts of politicians and ordinary people in the Federal Republic that we have reached this point.  Long, long may it continue.

UK Storm

What I would say about the UK Storm if I were reporting it in the papers...

It's going to be very blowy indeed for a time on Sunday night/ Monday morning.  We're looking at sustained winds of around 35mph on the south coast.  The Beaufort Scale looks only at sustained mean wind speeds, so that means it's a Force 7.  That is not a gale - it is a "high wind".

We won't talk about individual gust speeds and hype them up by misleading people by using the words "hurricane force winds" because one gust measured 100mph off the coast of the Isle of Wight.  For it to be a Force 12 "hurricane" storm we need mean mean speeds of 80mph.  We are well short of that on land.  It's fair to say that on sea conditions are far worse.  Remember, though, the shipping forecast does not reflect conditions here.

Some trees will come down in a Force 7.  This is usual and it happens every autumn, particularly when there are still lots of leaves on them.  Because of this, you should be sensible and avoided wooded areas in this weather.  If you can stay at home, great, but don't be terrified to leave your home assuming you use some common sense.  That's particularly important when driving.  Trees can come down very suddenly.

In the Great Storm of 1987, 15 million trees came down across Britain.  It was a Force 12 storm.  Winds stayed at 80 mph+ for over 3 hours.  Again, that's not what we are faced with here.  Talk of preparing evacuation routes and stock piling emergency supplies only serves to worry people needlessly.  Expect every paper to publish photos of the trees that have come down, to try to give the impression that the whole of the tree stock of Britain has been felled.  It hasn't.

The beach is a particularly silly place to be hanging out.  Gusts can easily carry your dog away, and swimming is absurdly dangerous.  Avoid them, no matter how "fun" you might think it is to watch the weather from there.

There will be some things to clean up after the winds have gone down.  That's autumn in a wet, windy island off the North Coast of Europe.  Prepare for the "After the Big Storm, now the Big Clean Up" headlines in the papers.  They're as inevitable as rainy bank holidays are in England.

Don't let the above spoil your fun in enjoying STORMAGGEDON though.  We British love it when the temperature veers 5C from the norm, or when the weather does anything other than drizzle.  It's precisely because we don't have any extremes of weather here that we are so obsessed with it.

Saturday, 26 October 2013


The last post was a bit intense, dealing with environmental and historical issues we may not always want to look at. Though I've never been into the kind of shock-blogging that gets so much attention, I've never shied from posting not-so-glamourous photos and info here on Iceland Eyes either. My main theme has been "Real Reykjavik" from the start, warts and all.

I've also never given the Airwaves festival much press, though I was lucky enough to actually go to the second one back in '99, and have dabbled in most of them since. It gets so much attention that I've usually left it to other professionals to cover it.

But on Monday the festival starts rolling, so it's only fair to give it a shout-out. It really is amazing to see how big it's gotten in the past fourteen years! This year I'm going to do off-venue only, and was actually telling my friend yesterday that, because of the overwhelming selection of acts and my own valkvíði (hard time making choices..what's the English word again?), I'd probably just end up at my favorite local, Kaffibarinn, which is presenting an outstanding line-up all week.

Which brings me to the picture above. Who can tell me where it was taken, precisely, and why it's so special? Oh, and I've awakened the Iceland Eyes Facebook page and Twitter account, so join me there as well.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013


A few years ago I translated a book from Icelandic into English called 25 Beautiful Walks of the Greater Reykjavik Area. It was an absolute pleasure to work with because of everything I learned about the geologic and societal history of the capital region of Iceland.

One of the most interesting chapters was about Walk 4 through the Gálgahraun lava fields on the Álftanes peninsula (here's a cool map.)This lava field is the very last lick of a once-flowing river of magma that poured out of the Búrfell volcano around 7300 years ago and northwest out to meet the chilled Atlantic sea. Now there's plenty of lava in Iceland, and quite a lot from this particular eruption in the Reykjavik area. But what to me was most interesting, to start with, was the translation of Gálgahraun: Gallows Lava. I was immediately curious to know more. The author, Reynir Ingibjartarsson wrote the following:

Down by the Lambhúsatjörn lake is the Sakamannastígur, or Convicts' Way, a path that passes Hrauntaugar to Gálgaklettar. Near the lake was once the equivalent of an Icelandic royal palace with its magistrate, captains and county sheriff. On this path the unnamed guilty were led to execution and later buried at Gálgaflöt. Maybe a boat was sent out for them from the slave houses at Bessastaðir that landed at Gálgaklettur? One convict was said to have been convicted of stealing butter from Bessastaðir itself [the Icelandic "White House"] and another for stealing from a church. It's not long since a human bone was found at this site. (Translation mine)

 Today this area is witnessing a different kind of destruction: a road is being cut through the lava field, which was decreed protected in 2009. Environmental protestors are being arrested in a disturbingly aggressive fashion, including elderly women and one of Iceland's most famous sons: Ómar Ragnarsson, a self-styled historian, conservationist and entertainer. There is a seething fury in many hearts right now that, though gunless, our "protectors" in the police force would so easily resort to physicality - and on who's orders?

So much comes into consideration in this situation: who "owns" Iceland? How willing are we to devastate a landscape, cut it in two, that serves to cleanse and filter our water the way lava fields do? What about the spiritual elements...are there hidden people who live here in some parallel world to ours, as Icelanders love to profess they believe in, and are we still then willing to devastate what is theirs as well? And ultimately for me, what about the poor souls murdered by the upper class for acts of pure desperation, the stealing of basic foods to feed themselves and their families? Don't they deserve that their bones, still emerging from this haunted land, be at least left to rest and return, slowly, to their mother earth?

Thursday, 17 October 2013


Tomorrow will be exactly a year since I decided to call Iceland Eyes a completed work. I actually cried that day, imagining life without my little passion-project constantly on my mind (Ooh, this scene would make a great pic for my next post! or Ok, there's a great topic to write about!)

I had something else to obsess about, though, a work that I'd known for years I would start and finish last autumn. It's called 88, written during the eighty-eight days between my 44th birthday and December 21st, 2012. The story is about living and dying and living again, of a white girl's experience on an active volcano in the middle of the cold cold briny deep, a forever loop of love and loss and beauty and hope. It was fitting also that Iceland Eyes was exactly eight years old at that same time. Lay an 8 on its side and what do you see: eternity.

Oddly, though, it's come to my attention that though I haven't been massaging it, this blog has gotten some attention internationally in the past few months, and has been linked to from here and there across the wide, wide web. I even found it, and me, mentioned in the comments section of this post from Climate Denial Crock of the Week about the ICES Annual Science Conference recently held here in Reykjavik.

So I decided to test the waters: is it time for an Iceland Eyes Revival? Should we, dear readers, aim for another eight years of great photos and interesting articles? Comments, of course are more than welcome...

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Germany and Cars

It was a German, Karl Benz, who invented the modern car. Germany hasn't forgotten this fact. Virtually from the moment his wife Bertha took it on her famed 65 mile journey (without his knowledge), stopping on the way to buy petrol from a chemist, using her hatpin to clear a blocked fuel pipe, and her garter to insulate a wire, an intimate and passionate love affair with the car began in Germany.

Bertha Benz: the "mother of the car"

There's no other country I've been to where the car is held in almost spiritual regard as it is there. Let me explain what I mean. In the US or the UK, there are of course people who love cars, who visit motor shows and buy motoring magazines. But for most the car is primarily a means of transport. They can be pretty, exciting, lovely to look at, but ultimately they get you from A to B. It's not at all uncommon to see cars that go unwashed for weeks or that have footwells filled with old sweet wrappers or newspapers.

Dirty Cars: Preserve of the Antisocial.. or Foreigners

Not so in Germany. I once read that when a German sees a dirty car, they assume the owner is either deliberately antisocial...or a foreigner. It never fails to amaze me (I lived there 12 years) how rapidly cars are washed after bad weather. Black cars, which attract the dirt so easily, seem to gleam all year round. This is no small feat given you're prohibited by law to wash your car (or do other public work, such as mowing lawns or putting out laundry) on a Sunday in most parts of the country. Nor may you wash your car at home, because of environmental considerations. They have to be washed at special designated places. 

Factory Visits

The car is put on a special pedestal. Choosing and collecting a new one is a real experience. Most manufacturers have collection programmes: you visit the factory, have a tour where you stay in a hotel the night before, get brainwashed into brand loyalty with amazing marketing films that seem to emphasise the spiritual nature of the marque, get fed, and at the end of it collect your new car in a delivery room. I've done this myself 4 times now: the joy and excitement of everyone there is palpable, and impossible not to get caught up in. 

The fact it works as a marketing exercise is shown by my best friend Dominic accompanying me on one trip to collect my new Mercedes. He's not "into" cars at all. Immediately on his return he ordered one from our local dealer, and we were back out in Bremen 3 months later collecting his new baby. They encourage children to come and have special information tours and workshops for them to get to work early on instilling a love of the brand.

Collecting the new arrival in the Mercedes-Benz "Delivery Room"

These collection centres really are something else. BMW invested an estimated €500 million ($675 million) in the stunning "BMW World" building in Munich. Designed by a leading Austrian architect in the shape of a giant whirlwind, it is simply a glorified showroom and collection centre for customers from around the globe. If you're from the US you can fly here, collect your new car, have a week to drive it in Europe, then it will be shipped back to your local dealer at home for you. If you're from the UK, come and collect it and drive it back through the Chunnel. If you're a visitor to Munich, simply jump in and try out all the cars: they actually encourage you to.

A Modern Day German Cathedral: BMW World
The high-tech VW "glass factory" in the centre of Dresden literally has glass walls so that the public can watch the miracle of car making from outside. I heard the place described as a modern-day German cathedral. The distinction is that people are not here to worship the Almighty, but instead it is a temple to the motor car. 

I once explained all this to the marketing director of Jaguar whom I happened to be sitting with at a dinner. He, a car person, sat there in slightly bemused fascination. The British just don't do things this way. 

For plenty of Germans it's not that much of an exaggeration to say the car is considered an additional member of the family. I remember my 65 year aunt getting very excited about the technical features of my car and the "new car smell" in a way that I've never experienced any British woman of her age doing. She knew what Distronic was for heaven's sake. Do you!?

Cupholders Are Extra
An interesting feature of cars sold in Germany, as opposed to elsewhere, is the lack of specification. A €120,000 top of the range model Mercedes has a sunroof, alarm, sat nav and even a cup-holder (€28) as additional cost optional extras. Each new car is built to order, so it's a cultural feature that people like to create a totally unique vehicle and select the specification to suit their needs. In the UK, and particularly more so in the US, we expect everything to be "thrown in". 

It wasn't so long ago that BMW, Audi and Mercedes didn't even come with air-conditioning, a radio or electric windows as standard in Germany. In the 1980s the S-Class Mercedes had an exterior passenger mirror listed as an extra.

German Car Industry

The German car industry is a huge employer, it's successful, it exports around the world, and it invests masses of money in R&D. The mid-term revision of the E-Class Mercedes cost €1 billion for example. That's not for the design of a brand new model: that's investment in changing the features of an existing car. In France people might buy a French car out of patriotism. In Germany, if they choose a German car, it's because they consider it to be the superior offering. If there's a better option from Japan or elsewhere they will take it. They tend to buy German, however, because they think they're the best available. 

The manufacturers take labour relationships as seriously as they do their design: one of VW's 4 main strategic corporate goals is to have "the happiest workers in the industry". VW does not email or phone any employee, of any level, outside work hours. Free-time is downtime. The philosophy is that happy workers make good cars. 

The Autobahn

The Autobahn is the symbol of the greatness of the car in Germany. Many people wrongly think the Nazis built the system. In fact they were started in the 1920s, but were greatly expanded during the Hitler time. By 1939 a network of freeways crossed the entire country, 20 years before Britain opened its first motorway. 

They remain "freeways" to this day (free of tolls for cars, and free of speed limits unless there is a specific reason to have one on a limited stretch). Most German manufacturers electronically limit their top models to 250kmh (155 mph) because this is considered fast enough for anyone reasonably to want to go. Porsche is the exception, and this is the one place you get to test their full capability legally on a public road.

Nothing says "Germany" like the Autobahn

The Car Isn't Quite King 
All this said, you might think the "Car is King" in Germany. It is very much on one level - emotionally and "spiritually". But unlike America, it is not King in terms of how people always choose to travel around the country. When Henry Ford produced the mass production car, he effectively killed off the growth of the passenger railway network and public transportation system more generally in the US. Everyone bought a car, and without one you're stranded unless you happen to live in NYC for example.

In Germany, the growth in car ownership has been matched by development of and investment in public transport. This might seem like a contradiction in such a car worshipping society, but it isn't. The Germans may love their cars like family members and keep them sparkling clean, but they're not there solely to get around. If a train suits the job better for a particular journey, people go by train. 

Nor is the car the king of the road in built-up areas. Traffic calming measures, strictly enforced 30kmh (16 mph) limits, and encouragement to use the excellent bus networks in German cities are common-place. You're allowed to drive at 250kmh on the Autobahn, but in urban areas you drive very slowly indeed. Pedestrians and bicycles have priority.

"Pedestrians have priority: drive at walking speed"

The car is worshipped by many in Germany, but it's not simply a workhorse, if that makes sense. It's more like a thoroughbred that's well looked after, carefully stabled, and taken out when the circumstances befit it. You can even follow Bertha Benz's route if you wish and see where it all began: since 2008 the "Bertha Benz Memorial Drive" has been signposted and is a major tourist draw. Repairing your car with a hatpin and garter are optional.

Out of Love for the Car

There we have it. VW's motto in German is "Aus Liebe zum Automobil." This translates as "Out of love for the car." It summarises the relationship of many, if not all, Germans to their cars very aptly indeed.