Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Cologne: A Cathedral and a Jail.

Long back I read a book by Ved Mehta, an autobio set in the 50's. Ved Mehta is blind and has authored many books on India ( Gandhi and jis apostles). Ved would talk about going from country to country in Europe on a whim, he was an American citizen. I always fancied that. Even watching the Bourne movies I fancy going from country to country with no thought to spare. In Europe, as many know, with a Schengen visa or a EU/US citizenship its possible.

When I planned this trip I planned to make Brussels my anchor city and try to visit neighboring cities in Netherlands and Germany. On Tuesday, June 1st, we went to Cologne, Germany. Thanks to we could figure  out the trains. That site is only for booking trains while you are still in USA. So we had to go the train station (Brussels Midi).

Europeans are a relaxed people. I've never seen them act in a hurry. The ticketing clerks took their own glacial pace in doing their job. I imagined them for a minute at New York Penn station, they would go insane, put them inCentral Station Chennai they will  positively go insane. Europe's fast trains (TGV, Thalys etc) are a boon for travelers. Brussels to Cologne is just a 2 hour ride. Mostly the first class fares are only $20 more and come with lunch/food. Since our return was supposed to be around dinner time I chose first class (when that dinner was just cold cut slice of smoked salmon I truly regretted the choice, this to a guy who traveled by day express from Tanjore to Madras to enjoy Biryani at Vizhuppuram).

Cologne is known ONLY for its famous Cathedral, called 'Cologne Cathedral". Its supposed to house some relics of the "Three Magi" or "three kings" who visited the CHild Jesus in Bethlehem according to biblical mythology. I've seen Cathedrals elsewhere but nothing prepared me for what I saw. The Cathedral is right outside the train station at Cologne (properly spelled Kolne in German). After filling ourselves with Burger King burgers we stepped out of the station and faced one of the biggest cathedrals in the world. The sheer size and intricate Gothic architecure simply overwhelmed me. After seeing that I think only the Vatican Sistine CHapel can impress me more, nothing else can.

I've lived 25 years close to Brahadeeswara temple and marveled at what people can accomplish in the name of faith. My school texts taught me about Angkor Wat, Aztec ruins and Mayan temples. Cologne Cathedral is the closest in near future for me to experience those. Wherever we went inside the cathedral history of more than 4 centuries looked down on us.

Coming out of the cathedral we headed to a tourist office. That is another  thing I love traveling in the west. One stop into the tourist office is always helpful, get a map, inquire about local sights and tours. When I asked what else is there to see in Cologne other than the Cathedral and a Nazi era jail only a smile was the answer. Off we headed to a jail that is two blocks away from the cathedral. This jail was used by Nazi's.

I've read that even in Berlin a tourist has to seek the Nazi related spots. THey are not marked well. The reason is Germany does not want such spots  to become shrines to Neo-Nazis. "Popularising" Nazi related spots is actively discouraged. In Germany its a punishable crime to deny the holocaust or to display the hated 'swastika' (problem for indians who consider it holy and have used it for centuries before Nazis).

The jail is not at all publicised as a tourist spot. Its just mentioned in the brochures only a discerning tourist or one who goes with a professional guide can find it. When our train crossed into Germany at Aachen I felt a thrill. Having read extensively about World War II (thanks to William Shirer etc) I felt a tingle entering Hitler's Germany. Germany, despite its many, many philosophers, musicians, writers, artists etc is instinctively known and felt as Hitler's Germany. Preeth who normally prays in a cathedral said at Cologne she did not feel so thinking that the top Nazis would have sat in the front pews and prayed while killing millions.

The jail is now officially called "El-De Haus" (LD House, LD being the intials of the businessman who built it. Gestapo acquired it from him and converted it to a jail). The jail now houses the "The city of Cologne's Documentation Centre on National Socialism". Throughout the brochures and pamphlets only the words "National Socialism" is used not its more horrifying short form "Nazi".

While inquiring our way I was very skeptical and somewhat scared to ask of it as "the Nazi Jail", I'd just point the place on our tourist map and ask. One white German guy, with a gleam in his eye asked "oh you want to see the Nazi Jail". For a minute I truly felt spine chilling.

We did finally find it, like I said its now non-descript and the building bears a benign sounding name "documentation centre". Documentation. My foot. We were greeted by a German at the reception. Seeing that we were Indians he inquired about "God of small things" and "shiva/vishnu". I told him that it was a German, Max Mueller, who translated the vedas for indians. We had only 30 mins left before closing. So we just went downstairs to the jail. The cells are filled with scribblings and memorial plaques filled with heart rending quotes. Prisoners had been brought from Russia and Poland. Just imagine the logistics and money involved in transporting prisoners across the continent. HItler was not just waging war. When I watched a documentary on Auschwitz I was dumbstruck by the dogged hatred to eliminate a race by going to such great lengths while waging a world war. I thought, if he had just waged war maybe the outcome could have been different. But wait when I say "he" I do not mean to absolve the millions of Germans and Poles etc who took active part in the holocaust and war crimes. In fact thats what puzzles sociologists till today. How could people from supposedly the cradle of civilization act thus.Take Anne Frank in Amsterdam. Jews were persecuted in Amsterdam by neighbors and friends. Anne Frank's hideout was betrayed for 30 marks or something.

To shake ourselves from  the stupor we hurried out and took a bus tour. We did not hop off. When a bus tour keeps looping around shopping malls you can guess there is nothing much in the city to see. One interesting mall was the Burberry shop. Its a glass building designed by an Italian. I mused, here is globalization, a building architected by an Italian to house a British Brand (Burberry) in a german city.

It was a surreal day to visit Cologne, especially the jail. Just the previous evening while sauntering around Brussels we saw a huge protest gathering in front of their Foreign office. All had green flags with crescent moon, so I presumed it must be Muslims protesting. Only when I checked the internet did I find the world enraged at the Israel flotilla incident. Next day in the train station I saw European newspapers all screaming murder. Now slowly considered opinion is emerging and saying "not so fast". But hey when it comes to Israel who cares about facts or waiting to know facts. I shall just leave it at that.

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