One evening, not long after my wife’s passing, my son and I were sitting in my apartment and reminiscing on happy days gone by.
So much to remember, so little to forget.
During the chat, when memories faded and the conversation turned to other things, I mentioned to him that i always had a wish to visit Berlin in Germany, but that his mother never had any interest in doing so.
“ why don’t you go now? He asked, “after all, your life has changed and will never be the same again, so there is nothing to stop you, so go!”
Later, when he had gone and the night drew in, I got thinking of what he had said and made my decision to go.
So, on the Saturday of that week I found myself on board the Ryanair flight to Berlin’s schoenefeld airport.
As we flew over the city on our approach to the airport, strange and troubling thoughts entered my over imaginative mind.
Thoughts that had no place in the here and now.
I thought, what would it have been like to be one of those thousands of innocent civilians in that burning city below me, as night after night and day after day, thousands of allied bombers rained down fire and death upon them, even though the world war was about to end.”
What a weird thing to be thinking of at the beginning of a long weekend of discovery and adventure.
Sometimes I wonder about the hopelessly insane state of my locked down mind.
But there you are.
On arrival at schoenefeld airport and clearing passport control, I made my way through the airport concourse.
I hailed a cab and was driven by a very disgruntled and silent, (thank god) taxi driver, the twenty or so kilometres to the centre of Berlin and the hotel where I was staying.
It was situated on the famous “alexanderplatz” which was once part of East Berlin during the soviet occupation of East Germany at the end of the second world war.
After a well-deserved rest, I made my way through the crowded streets and found a quaint little restaurant, with outdoor tables and an awning overhead, to shade me from the hot afternoon sun and so to enjoy my lone meal in comfort.
I took a seat at a table and asked the waiter if he spoke English” he answered “ ja,” and walked away.
“that’s a great start”! I thought,
When he returned and asked for my order, I told him I would love the best steak in the house,
“ja” he said and disappeared again.
Eventually my steak arrived, which I delved into with great anticipation and it was great, I enjoyed it immensely.
When I went to pay my bill, I told the waiter it was the best steak I had ever eaten and where did it come from?
Ireland, he answered.
Rising early the next morning I set off on a day of
First to view the world famous “brandenburg gates “
Followed by a stroll down the historic “unter den linden” . Then by the u-bann, to the war ministry museum, to visit the spot where Claus Von Stauffenberg was executed, after his failed assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler in nineteen forty-four.
I won’t make a boring travelogue of all my rambles around the beautiful city, enjoyable as it was.
But one of the reasons I came to Berlin was to visit the Jewish Holocaust Memorial built by Berliners in memory of the six million Jewish victims of the Nazi years.
It lies adjacent to the reichstag building and stands near the former “death strip” on the location of the infamous Berlin wall.
It is a rectangular site made up of two thousand seven hundred and eleven concrete slabs, laid out in a labyrinth of corridors, in which you can become hopelessly lost.
I went down the steps to the “place of information” under the memorial.
The “room of names” holds the known names of all holocaust victims and when I was there, they were being disturbingly read out over the sound system.
I found it very upsetting.
In the ‘room of families’ are the many faded photographs of smiling families in happier times, unaware of the horrors that awaited them in the years to come.
Just ordinary people like you and me, nothing left of them but old, long ago, images on a wall, in an underground room, where the sun never shines .
For once, they too made love and dreamed of the future, cried and laughed, toiled and slept and brought beautiful children into the world.
They tried to make this a happy place to live and
An example to heaven above.
but now they are almost forgotten by an uncaring troubled world.
And all because of “the horrific solution to an immoral and imagined problem.”
As I made my way around the many disturbing displays, I became sorrowfully aware of the fact that I was the only visitor in the memorial building. Apart for a tall man wearing a black greatcoat, a most unsuitable attire for this hot weather, a pair of pince nez glasses on his nose and shoes that had seen better days.
He looked at me and we nodded to each other, just two strangers in this sacred place, lost in our own unsettling thoughts.
I finally left, greatly disappointed by the lack of visitors and the disturbing uninterest of the” new world”, modern people.
Unsatisfied, I made my way back to the hotel on the alexanderplaz and while walking, in the cooling of the evening.
I began to think of ‘the room of names’ back in the memorial and wondered, too late, if Anne Frank’s name was mentioned there.
If it was, I wondered how I missed it?
Then the seed of an idea started to grow in my mind and soon it had grown into a mighty oak.
I would visit bergen- belsen concentration camp where she and her sister Margot died.
I had no idea of how to get there, so I looked it up on google map and found I could get there by train.
I discovered that it is situated in northern Germany, near the town of celle, not far from the camp itself.
So back to the hotel I went, packed my bags and headed to the haubtbahnhof (railway station) early next morning, before cock crow.
I was looking forward to my visit to belsen but for the life of me, I could not understand why.
I boarded the Berlin train to celle.
I walked through the carriages and sat in the first empty seat I found, but as the train left the station, a gentleman entered and placed himself down in the seat opposite me.
We glanced at each other for a second. He looked familiar and I wondered where I had seen him before. Low and behold, he was the same man I had seen in the holocaust memorial the day before.
I thought this more than a coincidence.
He looked at me and said “Gutten morgan, mien herr “
I replied that” I could not speak German
“no matter,” he said “I speak English quiet well, I studied medicine in England many years ago”
“my name is Doctor Klaus Eisler and who do I have the pleasure of addressing?”
I told him my name and that I was on a short visit from Ireland.
“gut” he said. Looking down at a satchel he had on his lap. “I’ve heard of Ireland”
“well,” I thought to myself “that’s a good start”
Then he opened the bag and took out a small piece of dry bread and kindly offered to share it with me.
I was about to refuse, but realised, I may hurt his feeling’s and decided to accept his kind offering.
Then he proceeded to nibble at it slowly.
He gazed at me embarrassingly through his,pince – nez, spectacles and said “sometimes, I get quite hungry, you know, and bread is so difficult to come by, these days.”
I thought, that was an odd thing to say in these times of plenty.
We travelled on through the bright morning, in silence.
Through the windows I sat admiring the passing picturesque “chocolate box” towns, green trees and beautiful mountains, while he sat there, eyes closed behind his ancient glasses, as if dreaming of a time, long passed”.
Suddenly, he broke the silence and said, “may I ask, where you are traveling too?”
“I’m going on a pilgrimage too bergen-belsen concentration camp to find the resting place of Anne Frank.
As you probably know, she and her sister’ Margot, both died of typhus, just a few days before the camp was liberated, in nineteen forty five
“a great tragedy , so sad”, he stated,
“but then, what is one death amongst millions?”
“one death is one too many” I replied.
“you see, when I first heard of Anne Frank, I was fourteen years old, an impressionable and sensitive young boy.
I read her diary many times and I fell in love with her.
I think to this day, in the distant recess of my mind, I still love her.”
Then he said,
“I was in Belsen some years ago with my wife, Evie and young son, Daniel, and was not overly impressed by what I saw.”
Once again, he opened his bag and retrieved the small piece of bread, again offered to share it with me, took a bite, then replaced it once more into the bag.
We changed trains at Hannover, and boarded the train for celle , it was to bring me, at last, to the infamous, bergen belsen, concentration camp.
But while changing trains,I lost sight of the herr doctor on the crowded platform.
I felt sorry for losing my eccentric, but likable fellow traveller.
You can imagine my surprise, when I boarded the train once more and proceeded to take my seat, only to find doctor Eisler already sitting in his.
He smiled and said, “you see I’ve been waiting for you, somehow I knew you would be here.”
I was happy enough with that.
We sat in silence for a while, obviously content in each other’s company again.
All that had to be said, was said.
Then once again he retrieved a small piece of bread.
From his satchel and once again, began to nibble at it.
But the contentment was short lived.
For on reaching the outskirts of calle, he seemed to become very agitated.
Suddenly he stood up, and said “I’m sorry, but I have reached my destination and I must leave, I have to meet my family, you see”
On reaching the door, he stopped, and looking back, while adjusting his spectacles, said in a quiet and melancholy voice.
“ auf wiedersehen, my Irish friend, may we meet again sometime” and then he was gone.
All I could say was ”slan, herr doctor”
I was sorry to see him leave, for he had shortened a long journey for me, and I hoped, I had done the same for him.
I sat back in my seat, curiously thinking of my strange new friend, when suddenly I realised, he had left his satchel behind him.
I jumped up and quickly made my way through the carriages, with the intention of returning it to him.
But he was nowhere to be seen.
There was neither sight, nor sound of him to be found, the whole length of the train, he had disappeared, like a ghost in the dawn.
Upon making my way back to my seat, I could find no explanation for his sudden disappearance.
I had no idea of where he lived, or really anything about him, except for the few scrappy pieces of information he gave me, during our journey.
On opening the bag, intent on finding his address or phone number, I found nothing, but a stale piece of bread, an old, moth eaten kippah and, a small wad of reichsmarks, from the nazi years, held together with a piece of string.
So, I decided ,upon reaching celle, I would leave it at the lost and found office in the station, with the hope, that someone, family or friend would claim it at some time in the future.
And so, I arrived at bergen-belsen.
The concentration camp lies only a few kilometres from celle, so I took a taxi for some of the journey, then walked the last kilometre or so along the approach road to the entrance, to where Anne and her sister Margot had died of typhus and exhaustion only a few days before the liberation of the camp.
As I made my way along the road, I could not help but think of all the other, doomed, men, women and children who walked this way of sorrows, and who, unknown to them, would soon disappear forever, like meteors in the night sky.
And other so-called enemies of the reich.
My first impression of the camp, once inside the entrance, was the silence and the feeling of great sorrow that hung in the air.
No birds sang in this terrible place, no sweet breeze blew away the fetid smell of death, that still lingered there, for over seventy, five years’
But like the memorial in berlin, the place was empty of visitors.
And here, in this god forsaken place, where once, thousands of people, had ended their lives of suffering and unimaginable cruelty, there was nothing of it left.
No gas chambers, no crematoriums, no guard houses. All having been burned down and destroyed by the liberating British army in nineteen forty-five, to prevent the spread of typhus and other diseases
The cold and filthy prison huts, once full of death and despair are long gone, except in the minds of the last few survivors.
The mud and filth of the mass graves that lie scattered about the camp, are now grass covered mounds, that belies the horror that lies beneath them.
Some say twenty thousand corpses, and others say seventy thousand, lie in these massive pits,
But we know there are many thousands more like them, who will remain forever unknown.
Around the whole area of the camp, in front of the lines of pine trees, stand the many stone memorials to the known murdered.
There is unimaginable sadness here.
I walked the solemn paths of the camp in search of the place I really wanted to see.
And there, by the side of the path, and the many, moss covered, memorials, was a grey standing stone, raised to the memory of Anne Frank and her sister Margot,
For there is no knowledge of where they lie.
The stone stands lonely and apart from the others, looking down on the forlorn bunches of flowers and photographs of Anne, as a happy young girl, with a cheeky smile on her, for ever young, beautiful face,
it bares the simple inscription.
1926 – 1945
1929 – 1945
Born June 12th
I stood there in silence and sadness and thought, “what a great life she could have had, what great books she could have written and what great joy, she could have brought to the world.”
And then, as I turned away with a heavy heart, I whispered softly, “goodbye, Anne” and left her in peace.
“so, sleep, my love, it’s over now
It’s time that you were leaving
The morning stars are fading fast
There’s no more time for grieving
But the sun will warm the earth again”
And dry up all the sorrow
The flowers that faded yesterday
Will bloom again tomorrow
After about an hour of wandering through this dreadful place, full of horrific memories, I became overcome by the heavy emotion and a great despair, that it had stirred up within me.
I moved towards the exit of the camp, lost in my own black thoughts, when, something odd and chilling, caught my attention.
For displayed on a crumbling, grey stone wall, overlooked by a tall, birch tree, was a lone memorial plaque.
And as I looked closer, and read the inscription, it suddenly became clear to me, who my mysterious and melancholy, fellow traveller was.
for in the fading light of that grim evening and the passing of the day, I read the inscription………
To the memory of…………
Doctor Klaus Eisler
Frau Evie Eisler
Then, looking up at the plaque one last time,
I said, to my ghostly friend,
“auf wiedersehen, herr doctor,”
And so, I leave this dreadful place
And to my home my steps retrace
For here no songbirds swoop or sing
And snowdrops die before the spring
And was it part of god’s great plan
That he should turn his back on them
For now, there are but mud and stones
To cover up their mouldering bones
With respect, Johnny McEvoy