My family fled Germany when I was 4. We were the fortunate Jews, landing first in London, where I learned English, then Switzerland, and finally San Francisco, where, with my good fortune still running, I became an American. Eight decades later, I wanted to show my grandson, Miles, now 21 and curious about the family’s origins, the country where I came from. We set out on a 14-day exploration.
Miles had just completed studies at the Prague film school, and Prague seemed an appropriate place to start a journey back in time. This was the city Hitler planned to make “a memorial to a dead people.” His macabre scheme saved Prague from the fate of Warsaw and the many cities destroyed in World War II. Prague remains the city much like it was in the 18th century, and the Jewish people survived.
I spent my first night in Prague in the wonderful Four Seasons Hotel, and on our last night, we watched fireworks and skydivers celebrating the feast of St. John Navalis from the terrace of the elegant Kampa Park Restaurant on the bank of the Vltava River. We paid a visit to the grave of our 16th century ancestor, David Gans, a German astronomer and philosopher, in the cemetery of the Old Jewish Synagogue.
We reached Berlin, our first stop in Germany, at the end of a four-hour train ride. Train travel in Europe is convenient, pleasant and stress-free, especially with advance purchased Rail Europe passes.
At journey’s end, I asked Miles for a one-word description of his impression of each city. His take on Berlin, a vibrant, lively, energetic city with a strong social sense, was “progressive.” Cafes and bakeries abound. New museums open very year. Three opera houses offer concurrent performances. Public transportation is excellent. As we walked from the station toward tram No. 10 that took us to our AirBnB in the hip Prenzlauerberg district, Miles looked around carefully, took a deep breath, and said, “I could live here.”
A highlight in Berlin was a visit to the Holzmarkt, an urban village next to the River Spree, largely built of recycled windows, secondhand bricks and scrap wood. There are apartments, a studio for circus acrobats, a children’s theatre, a wine shop, an art gallery, several bars and fast-food restaurants. It’s a great place to have lunch and hang out.
At the Jewish Museum we saw copies of the German-language London newspaper, edited and published by my father, Hans Lothar, who stayed in London when he sent us on to Switzerland and America. The paper, called Die Zeitung (the newspaper), was published beginning in 1941 under the auspices of the British Ministry of Information as “the voice of a free Germany.” I gave the bound volume of the first six months of the paper to the museum in memory of my father. He died during the London blitz.
We took a sobering tour of the Berlin Wall Memorial, a large open air museum on the Bernauer Strasse, conducted by a young American guide who grew up in Washington. The museum stands on land where a section of the wall separating East and West Berlin was built.
Berlin, said Miles, is “cool.” I agree.
Another four hours on a train took us to Frankfurt, once a beautiful medieval town, birthplace of Goethe. This is where I was born. The city was destroyed in World War II, hastily rebuilt, depriving it of its original charm, and now is the high-rise financial center of Germany. Nothing is left of the town where my family had lived since the 18th century.
We took a hop-on, hop-off bus and hopped off at the restored Roemerberg, the old central square. After a lunch of sausages and potato salad, we wandered over to the Schirn Museum to see the outstanding retrospective of American Jean-Michel Basquiat, Miles’ favorite artist, who began his career with mysterious graffiti in New York. Frankfurt left me saddened. Faulkner was wrong; sometimes the past really is past.
On to Munich, a lovely city with imposing 19th century buildings. We visited a delightful Paul Klee exhibit and the graceful Nymphenburg Palace. Most impressive for us both — aside from dinner of Bavarian specialties in a beer garden at dusk — was watching surfers catching the huge wave on the Issa River as it flows through the British Garden park in the center of town.
Then to Augsburg, rebuilt after the war to resemble its Middle Ages origin. We visited the Fuggerei, the world’s first social housing complex, a walled enclave created in 1516 for needy town citizens. It’s still in use; rents remain less than one euro per year ($1.16) but renters must be Catholic, indigent and promise to offer three daily prayers for the founding Fugger family.
Stuttgart, where the automobile was invented, was next, an industrial city located in a bowl surrounded by green hills. Its No. 1 tourist attraction is the spectacular Mercedes-Benz Museum with its history of 126 years of the automobile.
A few miles on is the Ritter Sport chocolate factory and art museum, where Clara Ritter suggested to her husband Alfred, that the company make square chocolate bars that would fit into a jacket pocket. Munching was changed forever. In the shop across from the museum, visitors can indulge in an endless variety of chocolates. Our last stop was the ancient university town of Tuebingen, undamaged by time and wars. We wandered the crooked cobblestone lanes and narrow alleys and picnicked on a traditional “stocherkahn,” or punt, gliding through town on the river Neckar.
The pilgrimage ended in Paris, where, with a glass of champagne and a madeleine, we toasted the end of a happy journey well traveled with my delightful young companion.
• Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer, critic and frequent contributor to The Times.
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