I too have had that wonderful experience of visiting Berlin, in fact did so before I even knew I ‘might’ be entitled to a ‘free’ excursion. See, I was only 6 ½ years old when the family left on a vacation to Italy from Berlin, of course – but we weren’t ever coming back! We boarded the either Julia or Dulia Caesar cruise ship and headed for South Africa. In fact, without ever having spoken English, I won the English book prize the first year of my S.A. schooling. My sister, seven years my senior, wasn’t so lucky. I digress. We lived in Johannesburg, our first furniture being made by a carpenter of the wooden crates that housed our belongings. One piece remains, holding up a TV in a bedroom.
The family grew, and a younger brother 15 years my junior appeared in 1945. He still lives in South Africa. The family started a business which grew into a fairly successful enterprise, but I thought it wise, mainly for the sake of our three children, to leave what I thought could be a tumultuous future in the country. I left for Canada with my family, and my sister eventually settled in Atlanta, US. In Canada I heard that I might be entitled to a free trip, which the Bürgermeister of Berlin had organised years back. My children had created their own paths, and lived and married in various parts of Toronto and Vancouver, BC. Although I applied for the privilege of a return trip to Berlin, it was always rejected. Finally, one year, instead of the ‘rejection’ letter – came airline tickets and accommodation for one week at the Crowne Plaza, just steps away from the KaDeWe. We immediately asked for the return part of the trip to be extended, so that we could ‘cruise’
around Germany and the Czech Republic and Austria. The Crowne Plaza was wonderful accommodation the spending money we were each allowed. Oh, those breakfasts you mentioned – never have I experienced their sumptuousness again. Our first item on the programme was to meet the Bürgermeister who welcomed us to his reception. There was a concert for us, by young students of a local school. They sang ‘lieder’ of ‘our’ youth. One of our ‘gang’ asked if they knew of a song of his youth – yes, they did, and “could he sing along” – very emotional – not a dry eye around.
Each day three buses appeared – one entirely for English-speaking souls, the second ½ and ½ and the third bus, entirely in the German language. Always we were taken to places of interest, all accompanied by a wonderful English-educated guide. And in our spare time, we had a book, and enjoyed exploring on our own – oh, so many tears when we stood in front of those memorials. This time, in our off time, we could visit our last home in East Berlin, something that had to be accomplished through Checkpoint Charlie previously. Oh, those Russians – “put all your East German money in the receptacle provided,” they had demanded on our leaving. Now just the Stadtbahn. And we were in Karlshorst, our last address in Berlin. Yes, we spoke with residents of the building we resided in – some were there since the Russian occupation. We even had an afternoon with a non-Jewish family, who entertained us and told us history we were not aware of. Being school children at ‘the’
time, they had no idea why some students were suddenly not with them anymore.
We remember all the palaces, the main synagogue with the police presence – Judenstrasse and the hub of the Jewish community – Oranienburgerstrasse. The cruise past the Wannsee Conf. centre where the ‘final solution’ was prepared. And a performance of the Hunchback of Notre Dame. The week ended and we all – our group, that is – celebrated our last night at the Kartoffel Kiste just steps away from the hotel. Next day to Templehof where we made our farewells – only we picked up our vehicle for the rest of our trip. Then we lived in Spandau – we could not afford the Crowne Plaza on our own, staying in very nice lodgings which we think formerly housed the US contingent guarding Rudolf Hess. Then on to Dresden, where we saw the destruction first hand, what war brings. Prague and the Czech Republic. Cesky Krumlov and our sombre moment in those lovely green hills, to the Mauthausen concentration camp. Vienna and Salzburg, Innsbruck and Ludwig’s castle, Rotenberg and a
short Rhein cruise and via Bacharach back to Berlin for a last look and finally again Spandau, our final moments where we ended ‘Our Trip of a Lifetime’.