“Hey! There’s a good place!” I hollered to Rick. I had noticed an opening in a long hedge and spotted a bench in a patch of green. We were getting hungry and this was a perfect spot for our picnic lunch. Pulling a quick U Turn, we headed back and walked through the opening. A single car was parked near a makeshift recycling station for the nearby city. Nestled in the shade was a bench. But as I looked around I couldn’t help feeling that this little green space was more. We parked our bikes and I turned to Rick and said, “I’m going to look around, I think this is an old cemetery. “
And sure enough, it was.
But this was very different from any other cemetery I have ever visited. Separated by old hedgerows, some areas were quite new and others held no headstones but, had the telltale rectangular indentations of graves. Walking deeper into the maze of symmetrical landscaping, it became increasingly overgrown. As I rounded a huge bit of foliage I was suddenly in a small clearing. Twenty or so identical headstones lined the perimeter. All dated 1945.
A World War II war cemetery.
But I wasn’t certain. How could I be? There was no sign or memorial marking to indicate this. I walked back to Rick, sitting at the bench and told him about the graves. I asked him, “Did you see a sign saying we passed the border into Germany?” No. The lone recycler was still there and I walked up to her and asked If she could speak English. “A little,” she replied. I asked her if we were in Germany and she said ”Yes. The border is a few kilometers from here.” I laughed and asked for a selfie with her, as she was our official “sign” that we had crossed the border. She laughed and agreed. Turns out, this was just the beginning of so many unmarked sites.
We continued talking and Arlen explained that indeed, this was an old cemetery but that as new graves were needed, the old would be removed. She said there was also talk of a dog park. “The new must replace the old,” she said.
And so it is in Germany.
When I was growing up, our family was lucky enough to have a set of Encyclopedia Britannica in our home. If I had a question, my step mom would almost always say, “Go look it up.” And so I would. I’m thankful for that early nurturing of intellectual curiosity. And now with our amazing little cell phone computers, I basically have an encyclopedia in my pocket! During this trip, we have come across so many unnamed relics of history and culture that I inevitably say or at least think, “I’ll look that up later.” I say it often enough that it prompted our cousin Sean to ask, “So how much do you really look up later?” Honestly, as much as I can still remember by the end of the day.
I did that a lot in Germany. Everything felt so mysterious. There was a lot I didn’t know about the German people and their culture. My first Google search? “What do modern Germans think of WWII?” After Arlen’s comment, I wondered. I found an article that seemed to shed light on what I was seeing. In the 1950’s the term Hour Zero was coined to indicate a new beginning for Germany that embraced the present and future instead of a troubled past. This took on the flavor of ideological change in the late 1960s, by the next generation. More recently when Angela Merkle, the previous German Chancellor, was invited to an anniversary celebration of D Day, as a leader of a former Axis country, she thanked the other leaders for being invited and said the German people viewed D Day as the beginning of the liberation from the Nazi regime. (How modern Germany feels about D-Day and Hitler’s defeat, Associated Press, Kirsten Grieshaber and David Rising The Associated Press, June 2019)
Embracing new ideas. Discarding the old.
So, when we rode past the third nuclear power plant in one day, this more modern choice of power made sense. And then when we came across the Wunderland Kalkar Amusement Park, built from yet another nuclear power plant in which construction had been halted mid-way through, (because of protests – looked it up), that made sense too. Updating old technology with a fresh new purpose.
Out of the blue, a random statue of Kaiser Wilhelm I in the middle of a rural town turned out to be one of the only of its kind left. Others were destroyed with time and the change of regime. In fact this one had lost its head from one of the Belgian Occupations. Apparently someone had the head all along. A relic of the old refurbished and ready to teach a new generation about their past.
Or an industrial building surrounded by a tour group. A velvet and silk factory that was built at the turn of the 20th century. And that bridge? A state of the art architectural accomplishment during the same period. The area is called the Port of Krefeld and it was very important during the industrial revolution. The admiration of innovation. Looked it all up. Because there were no signs. Not a single marker.
Xanten. Another charming German village. Did you know Queen Victoria first met Albert at the Van Bebber hotel where we stayed? Nothing there to indicate this except a wall of pictures of famous people. Rick asked the receptionist, “Did all these people stay here?” Yes. Churchill used the bar as a study when he visited the Rhine front in 1945, Napoleon stayed when it was a roadhouse, and the sitting room is where Queen Victoria first met Albert. I looked it up and haven’t found much. Only a reference in a Lonely Planet travel guide. So not sure of the correct details, but I like the stories and have no reason not to believe it.
We stayed a couple nights in the town of Moers, Germany. Here, there were a series of historical markers with QR codes. Heaven for the google-minded. So, I knew that Nazis had occupied this town and had even had a rally in the square where our apartment was located. But really, there was only a mention of that terrible time on these plaques.
As we wandered around the old town area, an older man using a walker stopped and started speaking to us in German. We had been looking at some historic buildings, an old shop house from the 1600’s. He urgently took my arm and pulled me close to him and he pointed up and down the street, made marching motions, gave the “heil Hitler” salute and gravely took his finger, like a gun, pointed it at his head and made a shooting sound. Then, he dropped my arm, shaking his head sadly and walked away. I’m not sure exactly what he was saying, but given his apparent age, he was likely a boy when the town was occupied. What did he witness? I can only guess, but I have a good idea. I couldn’t find anything on Google about that. I didn’t really need to. He wanted to be sure these atrocities were not forgotten or diminished.
When I think about modern Germany and her people grappling with an unsettling history, I can’t help but think of my own country. The US, struggling with our history of human enslavement and our continued battle for Racial Justice. The hope of replacing the old with the new, of moving forward without dwelling in the past.
But it’s more complicated than that. There is a fine line to be navigated. Embracing the future, moving forward. But not at the expense of forgetting the lessons of our troubled histories.
Combining old and new is a bit of an art form really. Teetering back and forth. Attempting to create balance. Never perfect. Always in flux.