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EUROPEAN JEWISH HERITAGE TOUR Spring 2000 (3)
After leaving Amsterdam, our next major tour destination was Cologne, Germany. The drive south through The Netherlands to the German border was delightful. Pleasant villages with lovely homes, colorful flowers and surrounding woods punctuate beautiful landscapes. Lucky for us our tour directors, Ami and his daughter Sharon of Amiron Travel in Toronto, have a relative in the gorgeous town of Beek who offered to join us for a tour of the area. The neighboring village of Ubbergen was another treat with magnificent homes surrounded by woods. We drove through a system of curving dikes and pumping stations that keep the flat lands (common in The Netherlands) dry. From these lowlands, we drove up to a wooded, high area to the eye-popping village of Bergendal. There are smart hotels and restaurants to make this a terrific vacation place.
Today was Remembrance Day in The Netherlands, commemorating the end of World War II. It was fitting that our next stop was at the Canadian War Cemetery in Groesbeek, Holland. As we departed the bus, Rabbi Schild reminded us that many of us might not be here today were it not for the sacrifice of these fallen heroes. It was a somber and emotional walk through the neat, well-kept cemetery. Each of us studied the markers for a name that might be meaningful, while paying respect to all who lay here.
Germany is rich in Jewish history dating back to the Roman Empire. Cologne first became home to Jews who arrived with the Romans, perhaps as early as 70 AD. The medieval Jewish quarter, which existed until 1424, when the Jews were expelled from Cologne, was situated in front of the Rathaus, the Gothic city hall. The street in front of the building is the Judengasse. The medieval main synagogue, women's synagogue, hospital, bakery and community center stood nearby. All that remains of medieval Cologne Jewry is the mikva, a women's ritual bath, reached by descending fifty feet via a Romanesque stairwell of hewn sandstone. The pool is fed by the Rhine and dates from 1170. In the Rathaus are Hansasaal's statues of the Nine Good Heroes of ancient history including Elijah, King David and Judah Maccabee and statues of eight Old Testament prophets. Cologne's Modern Opera sits on the site of the 19th century Glockengasse Synagogue, destroyed on Kristallnacht (Night of the Broken Glass). The Offenbachplatz in front is named after the composer Jacques Offenbach, son of a Cologne Jewish cantor. Opposite is the 4711 House: Eau de Cologne - Cologne's famous gift to the world.
Ninety percent of Cologne was destroyed during World War II. The post-war construction was efficient and practical but not architecturally inspiring. The sites of most interest are centered in about a square kilometer around the majestic cathedral, including the town hall, old town and the major pedestrian shopping streets.
The cathedral, towering above the Rhine, dominates the city with its High Gothic style. It is said to be the purest and most-perfect example of this type of architecture of all the world's large churches. It took 632 years to complete. Upon entering, one is initially overwhelmed at the steep vaulting and tall windows. The stained glass windows are magnificent and there are so many, the resulting light creates a majestic atmosphere. The mass of stone climbing high to the canopy-like vaults is stunning and combined with the architectural marvels and art treasures, it is no wonder this is the most visited building in Germany.
Cologne is the largest city and most important center of commerce in western Germany. Located on the Rhine with a large inland port, being a major rail center with easy access to motorways and with the Cologne/Bonn International airport fifteen minutes away, it's easy to see why. On the east bank is a huge conference center, which has a rustic setting from restored, ancient Roman walls. During the Nazi regime, this was a holding area for Jews before they were shipped from the nearby train station to death camps. It also housed other prisoners not destined for extermination.
Rabbi Schild was born and raised in Köln-Mülheim and was fortunate as a young student to escape the Holocaust. Most of his family was not so lucky. He returned to Cologne some twenty years ago, with his wife Laura, to renew his ties with the past. They became active in working with the clergy of other faiths, building upon their common beliefs to create better understanding and tolerance. The accomplishments of the Rabbi and his colleagues certainly played a large part in the healing process of the nation.
Because the Rabbi is so admired in this city, our group was invited to a warm reception at the Town Hall, which was hosted by Deputy Mayor Renate Canisius. This charming lady enthusiastically welcomed us and treated us to an overview of the history of the city with neat insights into everyday life and culture. But most importantly, she introduced us to Kölsch, the beer of Cologne. Kölsch is always freshly drawn, with a good head, and served in a slender glass. It is said that after a few draughts you will feel like a native of the Rhineland. Native or not, it was delicious and I felt great!
As in many town halls in Germany, there is a Ratskeller, a restaurant under the Town Hall, and that is where we went for a fast dinner. Linda filled her plate from the splendid salad bar and I had a typical specialty, Rheinischer Sauerbraten, slices of boiled beef in sweet and sour sauce with raisins and slivered almonds, served with wonderful potato pancakes.
After dinner, we went to the headquarters of the Protestant church for a very special evening. An interfaith gathering was convened to honor Rabbi Schild and his wife, Laura. A chorus greeted us and the ladies were presented with flowers. There were touching and passionate speeches praising Rabbi Schild and his wife for the major contributions they had made to the cause. It was heart-warming and thrilling to all of us to see the obvious love and respect felt for the Schilds. This was not to be the end of the tributes to the Rabbi. After the tour, he would be receiving an honorary doctorate in Osnabrück, the very ancient city that likes to call itself the City of Peace because the Peace of Westphallia, ending the 30 years' war, was signed there.
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