Sunday, August 28, 2011

Weg des Kreuzes

The next morning, I enjoy a smorgasbord of sausage, cheese, bread, then met Helga in the lobby. She greets me with the warmest welcome I have ever received: a big hug, a kiss, chocolates, a German book, a piece of amber ("It is a talisman!"), and a bouquet of roses. We hop onto our bicycles and I see Barth in the daylight, with a local townswoman as my tour guide.

“Here now is the original road that the soldiers marched on. You see?” I think of Grandpa, barely 18 years old, and probably scared as hell not knowing what was to come. “War. What a waste of youth,” says Helga. We pass a group of bikers going the opposite way, a chorus of “gut morgen’s.” Our first stop is at the memorial stone for Stalag Luft I. As Helga fingers the panels, I begin to have a better understanding of the layout of the camp. “Now, we go to Nord III.”

the memorial stone

After parking our bikes, we stand in silence. Immediately I am struck by the beautiful silence of the woods and the wheat field. “It’s peaceful,” I say, and Helga agrees. I feel a sense of gratefulness, especially one of privilege, and even joy. “Now you can show Don your pictures and tell him you were here. He will be so happy.”

Helga with "Nord III" in the background

We make our way back into town, past the train station where Grandpa feared the most for his life as the townswomen attacked the soldiers, through the original gate where they marched, to the little museum where Helga’s office is. She translates each and every panel for me; she gives me a better understanding of Barth and its people in WWII. Seeing the detailed model of the camp, hearing the various excerpts, and I can almost close my eyes and see it. And I absolutely LOVE watching Helga as she thumbs through papers, photos, and correspondences–this is truly her vocation! I ask her about her inspiration for her 20 years of research. She explains how at five years old, her life was saved by a Yugoslavian liberator. Keeping the memory of the POW and concentration camps is one way for her to honor that.

precious Helga with pics of Grandpa, then and now. isn't he handsome??

Helga digs through one binder full of some sepia toned papers and black and white photographs. “Your grandfather and some of the other prisoners asked me to find out what happened to the family that died...did you hear about this?” I shake my head no. “Oh, Carolyn. It’s awful. Look at this.” She shows me two photographs which will haunt me forever, depicting a scene which I now know has haunted my grandfather. In the first, a woman and a little boy's legs (he is out of the frame) lie dead in the grass, a baby carriage nearby. The other, the baby and its head and pillow stained with blood. Once liberated and free to roam a bit, this terrible, terrible site is what some of the POWs stumbled upon. The woman was the wife of an SS officer, who gave her a revolver to kill herself and the children should the Russians invade. How do we as humans deal with this kind of stuff? “This is awful,” I say as I hand her back the picture of the baby–as if the word “awful” can even do justice to describe it. She sighs deeply, “Yes. It is war.”

We enjoy a simple lunch at Hotel Stadt: a light fish soup, and lighthearted conversation. As we put our coats on, Helga sighs again. I am sure I have tired her out, much of the content at the museum was heavy. “So. You really want to go the KZ?” (KZ is an abbreviation for a concentration camp). It’s not even a question–yes, I want to. We bike rather somberly. We pass a street sign, Weg des Kreuzes (Way of the Cross), and she motions for me to ride alongside her. “Let me tell you a story. On this street, there was a tailor who was murdered. You see, he often kept buttons in his pocket. One night at a bar, another man mistook the bulging, jingling pocket as one full of money. Following him home, the man stabbed the tailor on the street–only to realize he killed a man for his buttons.”

The memorial comes into view. Parking our bikes, Helga motions for me to read the single panel that stands near the road. “You see this picture? It was the original memorial set up. It acknowledges the 180 found dead here. But it doesn’t even mention that it was a concentration camp.” We walk a little gravel pathway to the little plaza. It is remarkably unkempt, uncared for, with weeds growing up through the sidewalk and litter scattered about. Up the few steps and the concrete is patterned with the upside down triangle: the shape of the patch that “political enemies” wore. A tower stands to the left, red triangles pattern it and it is missing the bell that was promised at its construction. A wall with four sculptures mounted upon it; the concrete of the wall is imprinted with wood, signifying the barracks, and barbed wire. The piece in its entirety is quite powerful and far from cliche. Helga tells me their respective titles: “Torture,” “Solidarity,” “Collaboration,” and “Liberation.” To the right of the wall are 6 tombstone-like plaques with inscriptions. They are identical, though written in different languages, representing the variety spoken in the camp.

Helga points out more trash lying in the surrounding woods. “This is a place where kids come to drink.” She also beckons me closer to the plaques, to see the chisel marks around the edges. “In 2000, we had an incident. Some kids spray painted over the plaques. Swastikas. They also wrote: ‘Don’t honor the dirty Jews. Honor the brave Germans.’” Fittingly in this very moment, the gray sky begins to send down a mournful rain.

The two of us take shelter under the tower. I know in this moment I am meant to just listen to Helga, because she is compelled to talk. “When Hans and I went to Israel, the daughter of a survivor begged us, ‘Tell me, how can it have happened?’ And we have no answer. For me, it is not understandable. But the thing is, it happened, and it can happen again.” She tells me about two memorial services held for the KZ camp survivors; one moved her especially. “It was a moment I will never forget. There are moments that you can never forget; they are burned into your heart. Like this moment with you! Under a tower with a hole, and without a bell.”

We embraced, the rain ceased, and we emerged from our little shelter to go eat coffee and cake. I had the good fortune to meet Hans, and their beautiful daughter. We eventually said goodnight, and I enjoyed an undeserved multiple-course dinner at the hotel. My head swam and my heart ached from the emotions of the day as I ate in solitude. I looked at my food and wine and thought about the men and women who went hungry and suffered terribly just a few miles from where I sat.

In the morning, Helga greeted me with yet another keepsake and homemade cookies “in case the train stops again!” She waited a half hour with me until the train pulled away from the station. Waving goodbye to her, I couldn’t help the tears that ran down my cheeks.

saying goodbye

One day with Helga was not enough! I was so, so impressed by her life, her work, and her passion. Learning from about the camps gave me such an increased appreciation for life and the many blessings that God bestows upon us. Yes, even when it seems he is not there. What is that question we all ask ourselves–"How can a God who reveals himself as Love itself let this happen?" The answer for me came in the rain that seemed to indicate his sorrow; he is there through it all, he suffered and still suffers intensely with the victims of war and hatred and violence–and he suffers with us as we bear our Crosses too. I swore to myself that I would come back to Barth, and I will.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Does anybody speak English? Anybody?

The Friday after Paul and Stephanie left to return to the States, I began my very first independent journey to the town of Barth, Germany, where my mom's dad was held as a POW. There I was to meet a woman named Helga, who has single-handedly kept the memory of the POW and concentration camps in Barth alive.

Yes, it was going to be a long day of trains and transfers: leaving Landstuhl at 07:02, I was not due in Barth until 16:44. I was a little nervous to travel alone, but after backpacking I was comfortable enough with the train system. In Hamburg, I was on my second to last leg–another 3 hours and then I would meet the Helga I had heard so much about from my mother and grandfather.

I stretched out and put my feet up on the seat in front of me. Two older women sat in the seats next to me, though we were separated by the aisle. One who seemed to have a permanently grumpy countenance looks over at me, says something in German and points to my feet. It is either, “I like your shoes,” or “Take your shoes off the seat. People sit there.” I smile stupidly and refrain from stretching out. I am honestly too excited to sleep, anyway.

Around 15:30, the train comes to a stop. Typical, except this one seems to be lasting longer than normal. I notice after an announcement is made (no English translation in this east German rural train) that my companions look a little annoyed. “Spekken du English?” I ask meekly the lady who fussed at me. “Nein,” she replies, but she quickly finds another woman who speaks a little. “The train is delayed for 2 hours.” The one whom I deemed grumpy and her friend stand up to leave the car, but stop and motion for me to get coffee with them in the bordbistro.

The “two-hour delay” turned into a solid four-hour delay. Another train headed to Rostock was also unable to move forward, and in Shwerin those of us headed to Velgast piled into the Rostock train. The four hours involved many announcements, free coffee, and several promises of moving forward in the next forty minutes. The two women, the "grumpy" one and her friend, (I fondly refer to as my German mothers) really took me under their wings. Each time an announcement was made, they would point to their watches and indicate how much longer we were to wait. They even found for me a Bahn worker who in very good English was better able to explain what was going on to the confused little American girl.

During all the waiting, the inconvenience, the confusion, I think it almost is appropriate to have undergone a little discomfort when I consider what my grandfather’s first trip to Barth was like. I interviewed Grandpa in high school for WWII project and began to have an understanding of his experiences as a POW:
“[We] were packed into these things, the capacity I mentioned was 40, and they packed 53 to 55 of us in each car. So there was no room. You couldn’t sit down, well, everybody couldn’t sit down at the same time, so half had to sit and half had to stand. And obviously you couldn’t lay down and rest at night, and as we were leaving there they had two gallon buckets to take care of biological needs...And water was the worst thing that we were lacking. As a matter of fact, I would rather, if I had to die, I would rather die from hunger than from thirst because thirst is one of the most maddening experiences you can have. And it was so maddening it got to a point–this experience is running into days now, we’re talking about 120 mile lasted 8 days– so the maddening about having water, by then it was Jan and it was snowing at night, so we’d–the cars were wooden– tear slats from the top of the car and run our hands out and cup them to catch the melting snow after daylight. And we’d take turns doing that...but it took time, and I didn’t think I could really be living through this thing.”

Yeah, I think I can stand a little more waiting than I had anticipated.

Thankfully, my hosts in Landstuhl leant me a cell phone from which I was able to contact both Helga and the Hotel Speicher where I was to stay. The phone calls mostly consisted of me saying, “I don’t know when we are going to move forward, or where we are going to stop.” Eventually, we did move forward. The English-speaking conductor found me and explained as best she could that we would not be going to Velgast (it would be pointless anyway, because at this hour the trains to Barth would no longer be running), the train would stop somewhere else, and a paid-for taxi service would take me from Somewhere Else to Barth.

me, squishy Laura, and flat Lisa waiting, and waiting, and waiting...

My German mothers usher me off the train and point me in the direction of the taxi. There are 7 other passengers in the large shuttle, 2 of which are going to Barth. I squeeze into the very back of the shuttle and meekly ask, “Does anybody speak English?...Anybody?” to which there is no response–I am in Close-to-Nowhere, east Germany, after all.Thankfully, I arrived at the Hotel Speicher at 22:30. Waiting for me was a delicious sandwich with a little American flag toothpick, and a bed in which I quickly plopped into for a wonderful night’s rest–the Baltic air cooling my room.

“In all [those] months, I never slept on anything but the floor. They were overcrowded and the worst part was lack of food...They had these little supplementary packages. If you added that to the soup the Germans would give us, you could survive on that. But you wouldn’t last very long, because the soup we got was maybe 500 calories total.” -my Grandpa, Don Menard

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Iron Sharpens Iron

Though done with our backpacking trip, our adventures were far from over. We spent some solid time walking around like zombies until we recuperated. The last few days we had together as a little pilgrim family included another trip to France to visit Domrémy-la-Pucelle (where St. Joan of Arc grew up), an official tour of the castle in Landstuhl, and some delicious sit-down meals.

the basilica in Domrémy! my favorite location by far. simple & quiet French countryside

lunch next door to the basilica, cooked by some African nuns. we ate escargot, and even tried some kangaroo.

After the precious Ariana and Ashley left for the States, Stephanie and I were able to travel to Cologne (Köln) to see the cathedral. We even climbed the 509 steep stone steps to the top of the towers. Look at that sweat. Beasts.

So, we eventually said our "see you later's." I can't begin to describe how grateful I am to know these saints in this picture! Each one is so precious to me; I could go on for days about how much I love them! Praise the Lord for the friendships he blesses us with.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

WYD Part Dos: Hola, Papi!

Running on just a few hours of sleep, we walked the 200 feet to the gate in hopes to be let in around 4am. Not so much. After four hours, with people pressing close and becoming rather testy, we were told that due to overcrowding, people were not going to be let in.

We resigned ourselves to the disappointing fate and parked on a hill outside the airport. Maybe, just maybe, they might still let us in...

...and they did! At 9:30am, just shortly after the Holy Father's arrival to Cuatro Vientos, they opened the gates!!! It was a beautiful victory, one which inspired me to hold the Aggie flag high.

And approximately at 9:35am, as the five of us marched triumphantly down the runway, I hear to my right, "Carolyn??!!" In a crowd of 1.5 million, I ran into one of my dearest friends Jenny from middle & high school, along with Marco and Becca! Can you believe it?? God is so good!

We had a beautiful Mass with the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI. With the help of our Ecuadorian friends, God be praised, we made it through the insane crowds in the metro to the airport, survived a rather turbulent RyanAir flight, and even a rather turbulent shuttle ride back to our "home" in Landstuhl...whereupon our arrival, we chowed down on the food Paul's precious parents set out for us, and laughed deliriously at all of our adventures.

Finally, we:

...for many, many hours.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Wave hola to Papi

From Lourdes we headed for Madrid, where World Youth Day was held this year. Such a beautiful train ride through the Spanish countryside and Pyrenees mountains. I even saw a man whom I fondly dubbed Zorro: I glanced out the window and there he was, riding a black stallion, his white blouse and long hair whipping in the still, my heart.

It was another long trip, with a short delay. We made it into the city around 9:30pm, with a considerable amount of confusion as to where we were registered to stay. Thankfully, an elderly Spanish couple walked 5 blocks with us until we reached a WYD representative, who walked another 3 blocks with us. Precious angels. We subsequently had a slumber party with some Oklahoma Sooners and Ugandans on the lovely concrete bed of a high school parking lot.

On Saturday, we had time to kill until the 8:30pm vigil with the Pope. We walked around a gorgeous park, where we ran into and volunteered with the Missionaries of Charity. Had a delicious lunch of sandwiches and paella, and headed for the Prada art museum. Ran into Carly King & her lovely Longhorn friend Randy (not once, but twice!) and accidentally abandoned Stephanie and Ariana when we left for the cathedral and palace...oops.

Aggie Catholics, minus me and Stephanie

Had a fighting Texas Aggie Catholic reunion + the lone Longhorn, WHOOP! A reunion which made us 5 minutes late for the 8:30 vigil with the Pope...and accesses were closed :( We camped out in front of an apartment complex across from Cuatro Vientos, the airport where the vigil and the morning Mass were to be held. The sky began to threaten serious rain and lightning. On the first floor of the apartment complex, a woman was hanging an Ecuadorian flag out of her window. Paul asked her to please buzz us in, just to wait out the storm in the hallway of the complex. Not only does she let us in the hallway, but the beautiful family invites us into their home! They fed us melon, popcorn, turned on the live broadcast of the vigil, and we watched and adored Jesus from 500 feet away.

I can't begin to describe how emotional we were that the family to have welcomed all 9 of us into their home, where 7 of us stayed for the night. To experience such love and hospitality from total strangers! In a way, it was far more special than had we made it into the audience with the Pope.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

I Heart Lourdes

Our day begins around 5:30am, with the aim of leaving the convent in Nevers by 6:30...yeah. A traditional French breakfast was set out for us: bread, cheese (brie & gruyere), nutella, honey, coffee = YUM. And as if by providence, the pouring rain stopped just long enough for us to make it to the train station.

Things got pretty exciting when our train to Paris slowed down for some unknown reason, causing a delay. We had approximately 1 hour to make it across town via metro to the other train station. Basically, it went as thus: run off the train, run to the metro, stay on said metro for 30ish minutes, sprint .25 miles to the train station, sprint onto train, then walk all the way to the back of the train before finding seats, dripping with sweat and wafting our ripe scent through each car. After our adrenaline rush wore off, our 6 hour train ride to Lourdes involved naps and an enticing game of checkers, played with orange peel and craisins:

There are some experiences and encounters with God that the human language fails to properly describe, and I have very few words to explain the beauty of Lourdes. What I can tell you that it is a pilgrim hotspot, with thousands of people around. And that the Virgin Mary appeared there to St. Bernadette in 1858, encouraging devotion to her Son, and that miracles and healings have occurred there ever since.

And it so so beautiful! And my heart is completely on fire with love! But you know, friends, I was reflecting on the past couple of days, and thought, "This is so hard to believe. How can we believe that this is true? That God is even real?" And I watched person after person run their hands along the grotto where she appeared. Each one was searching and touching and grasping for God, for meaning, for healing. In the beauty of this struggle to see him, it's as if God is saying, "Yes, I'm real! I exist! And I love you!"

Candlelit vigil

Yes, dear friends, I thought of each one of you at Lourdes.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

joyeux anniversaire, Pablo!

So having prayed in the wee hours of the morning at Sacré-Cœur, we were each running on less than 3 hours of sleep. We headed off for Lisieux, the place where Saint Thérèse the Little Flower was a Carmelite nun.

As a side note, mainly so you don't mistake us Catholics as a bunch of weird idolaters...Catholic Saints are men and women who lived incredibly courageous and virtuous lives, who followed Christ to their utmost capacity as persons. We believe that because they lived so boldly and beautifully, that they are in Heaven and pray for us. Just like I might ask you to pray for me, we ask them to pray for us. We admire the Saints and hope to live as virtuously as they did, in whatever way we're called. And visiting these places of importance in their lives is one way to pay homage to their incredible faith in God.

the Basilica

the dome

the crypt! so pretty

and sweet Paul got us roses. awww.

"Without love, deeds, even the most brilliant, count as nothing." -St. Thérèse

On the train from Lisieux to Paris, we split a baguette paired with a healthy serving of peanut butter and nutella, of course. We barely caught our other train leaving for Nevers, France, but cutting it close on time was something we became rather accustomed to. Saint Bernadette, who saw the Virgin Mary on 18 different occasions as a little girl in Lourdes, has made Nevers famous. We stayed the night in the convent where she lived the rest of her beautiful life as a nun serving the poor, and where her body lies incorrupt...that's right, it hasn't decayed. I know, it's hard to believe, but our faith paves the way to trust.

Finished the night with a delicious 3-course dinner as a little exhausted pilgrim family, with more exhaustion and beautiful things to come (oh, if we only knew...)

chapel where Bernadette liked to pray

"I shall spend every moment loving."-St. Bernadette

Je suis du Tejas

We left for Paris (Pair-reeee) a little later than expected, but in retrospect, our short time there was all we could handle! I think you'll begin to understand as you see how insane our backpacking week was...

I was in my happy place on the train, with a view of the beautiful French countryside, a cup of coffee, and a German-Parisian to chat with. Our conversation went a little like this:

me: "I know a little, but I'm sure I'll butcher the French language."
him: "Butcher?"
me: "Uuuuh....destroy?"

Once there, our first sight to see was Notre Dame. Amazingly, we were allowed to tour the church in its entirety while a Mass was going on.

We made a mad dash for the Miraculous Medal Shrine, where with 2 minutes left to closing we literally begged a little nun to allow us in: "Prier pour une minute! Please!" It was definitely a moment we could physically experience how Mary guides us to her Son.

We then trekked up the hill to the Sacré-Cœur (Sacred Heart) Basilica to check in. The rooms were a steal for 5 euros per person, and a promise to each take an early morning Adoration hour. For those of you who don't know, Catholics believe that during the Mass, the bread and wine are changed into the true Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ. The hosts that are not consumed within Mass can be displayed for all to adore. As He is vulnerable in this state, He cannot be left alone, and Adoration requires that a practicing Catholic act as a guardian at all times that He is present. The amazing thing about the Sacré-Cœur is that they have had Perpetual Adoration since 1885, so someone has been praying there for 24 hours day, for over 125 years–and we participated in this tradition!

Our view of the dome from our bedroom window.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Das Burg

Busy and productive day! Ashley flew in this morning, and Ariana this evening. Lots of prep for our pilgrimage to World Youth Day. We leave for Paris tomorrow and come back from Madrid late Sunday...aaaah! Prepare yourself for an overload of posts/pictures in roughly 1 week's time.

One of the highlights of our day? Hiking up the hill to Burg Nanstein, the castle in Landstuhl built in the 15th century. Squishy Laura (my sis' alternative to a flat version of herself) joined in on the fun. Observe:

Scoping out the terrain

Hiking on the trail! Squishy Laura is such a beast.

Squishy Laura was held captive in a tower! Thankfully she was rescued by moi.

Those smarties who built the castle used natural landscape as a foundation...this one's for you, my geology-obsessed mother.

Princess-esque tower.

The view of Landstuhl! And us girls who conquered the castle.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Guten Tag!

Day One:

If all days are like these past two, then I imagine I'll have trouble blogging "on the reg" as Jamie would say. So, my dear friends, family, fellow Americans, countrymen, I hope you will be patient with me, ya?

And dear Google, I appreciate your attempt to be cultural and all, but please do not switch the language on me again. It was with great difficultly that I had to change the settings on "meine blog."

Had a safe and nice 9-hour flight over to Frankfurt via Lufthansa airline. I'd like to give a shout out and say "danke schön!" to the lovely little German stewardess who made my flight comfortable (whatup, free wine!) and to our seat neighbor who gave us German chocolates, mmm.

Flat Carolyn and Jamie didn't really enjoy the snack...still smiling, though!

After some serious airport confusion (as in, Stephanie and I may or may not have set off a security alarm whilst desperately searching for baggage claim) we were welcomed into Germany by the lovely Braden family! Paul's red hair was a shining beacon of hope for our tired eyes, and his parents' hugs and pretzels were warm and delicious, respectively. And although we got little to no sleep, we stayed wide awake driving 80-100 mph on the autobahn. Gazing out at the beautiful German countryside–rolling hills, forests, vineyards, little settlements scattered here and there–I could almost smell the beer and schnitzel.

We're staying with the Braden's in Landstuhl, in a great town home. From the window, I can see other quaint homes, shops, the church steeple, and a castle from the 12th century that sits on the top of the hill. There's no air conditioning here, as it's not needed! Just crack open the windows and let in the breeze...let in the sounds of the little German kids (kinders!) playing, the church bells, and the random music festivals. Did a little exploring:

...And we ended the day with a scrumptious feast of cheesy-pork-pasta-something in nearby Rammstein. Probably had the best sleep of my life!

Day Two:
Happy birthday, Mom and Caro!

Started the Sabbath right: with Jesus! After Mass on the Army base in Landstuhl, we drove to Luxembourg. No big deal. Just drive 1.5 hours and you're in another country. We visited the American Cemetery there–for reals, if you haven't been to one, go. They are so beautiful. Your taxes pay for their upkeep anyway. I'm particularly thankful for having found the headstone for a man who was in the 398th bomb squadron with my Grandpa in WWII. How cool is that?

After Luxembourg, we drove back to Germany and visited Trier, the oldest settlement north of Rome. There, we saw the Porta Nigra (Roman ruins, an old gateway into the city) and the Trier Cathedral, which houses the relic of Christ's robe, taken from him at the Cross. The architecture was divine (haaa).

We finished off the afternoon with some mouthwatering vanilla-bourbon ice cream for me, cookies and cream for Steph, and a banana split for Paul...wunderbar! I could easily get fat here. I think flat Jamie and Carolyn are...