Sunday, June 2, 2013

A Visit To A Beautiful, Schizoid (and Forgetful) German Twin-Town

Top: Rudolph Hess and Hitler inspect at the 1936 Winter Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Below: One of the posters announcing the 1936 Winter Games.

Arriving in the Bavarian Alps twinned villages of Garmisch-Partenkirchen from Munich, we beheld very little immigrant upheaval or in fact, immigrant presence. What we did see - from our hotel in Partenkirchen ( ), was a beautiful alpine scene of a bucolic, friendly village set amidst the grandeur of majestic mountains - including the Zugspitze, Germany's tallest peak.

We spent five days here, enjoying the incredible scenery and in the company of our German friends, Reinhart and Elli.  Assorted trips included forays not only to Zugspitze (which took some two hours to ascend, including via train, bus then cable car) but the roaring (actually defeaning) gorge known as "Partnachklamm" and hikes through the town centers of Partenkirchen and Garmisch. (Reinhart and Elli stayed in the Bavaria Hotel of Garmisch)

First, some basics - including of geography. Although mistakenly called "Garmisch" - or more commonly people carelessly referring to "going to Garmisch", there are actually two separate village entities: Garmisch and Partenkirchen. However, the two became yoked together in history as "Garmisch-Partenkirchen" once the bidding for the 1936 Winter Olympics arrived. This was because adequate facilities were needed, so Hitler decided to forcibly create one single site entity in order to provide the adequate resources, housing, etc. After this was done, and the Games awarded by the Olympic committee, construction began and ski jumps, skating rinks etc were completed. Then there appeared the many posters heralding the Games. (Which for reasons I will go into became known as the "Nazi Olympics" and also set up a propaganda preview for the more famous 1936 Summer Berlin Olympics- with which most Americans are familiar- perhaps because of sprinter Jesse Owens.)

At the "Gipfel" restaurant at the summit of Zugspitze, Reinhart, Elli, Janice and I sat down with a Bavarian couple - Heinrich and Maria. Over Lowenbrau and Schweinebraten (with red cabbage) we chatted for nearly an hour and at some point the conversation turned to the dark history of Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Heinrich, whose father was involved in the Winter Games preparation, told us the villages were ferociously anti-Semitic even before Hitler forced the towns together for the Olympics. Signs rudely declaring "NO JEWS!" or "Jews Not Allowed!' were everywhere. It was only after the games were awarded that Hitler ordered all the signs be removed, lest the world receive a bad opinion of Germany and the Olympics' twin villages, and villagers.

To see  more image from these Olympics go to:

Despite such attempts at trickery and propaganda, we learned from separate sources that Western journalists at the time did detect troop movements near Garmisch. Worse, Hitler had actually been photographed in February, 1936 inspecting a troop contingent in Garmisch. Heinrich informed us that despite this the level, intensity of anti-Semitic vitriol was barely recognized.  Indeed, he observed that for a long time the twin villages hostility had seen Jews leaving the region in droves so that few remained by the time of the Winter Games. Those that did remain kept a low profile.

Most irritating, to him: the memory of those times had been sanitized and wiped away over successive generations. In the first generation after the games, when he would express brief interest in how they were conducted and whether there was any Nazi influence, he was informed curtly: 'Nein! They were just games! Games! That's all!"  Over the next generations they became a "great Olympics" but all connections to Hitler or the Nazis were dissolved.

Today, no one wants to talk about Hitler, the treatment of the Jews in the twin villages, or the hostility experienced before and after the Olympics.  Heinrich did recount one incident in which a determined tourist - staying at a Gasthof- did manage somehow to excavate an old "NO JEWS!" sign from an attic some years ago. But so far as he could tell, that was the only evidence there'd ever been any anti-Semitism in the region.

For our part, in our separate comings and goings or with Reinhart, we found the townspeople of both villages to be friendly and hospitable, but were warned by Reinhart not to bring up the 1936 Olympics. This despite the fact Reinhart actually drove us past the still extant ski jump used then, as well as some of the Olympic buildings. (In effect, the towns sought to embrace the Winter Olympic Games of '36, but not the other political baggage attached to them- truly schizoid!)

When I asked Reinhart if any Jews remained anywhere in this region he replied he "didn't think so". His best guess is that most left long before the Olympics commenced.

Observing scenery in various places of interest, and even the restaurants, one might well see why. At each place or venue we beheld large, adorned crucifixes displayed on foyer walls or in dining areas. Even the summit of Zugspitze itself featured an immense cross of "the Savior crucified" (in Reinhart's words).  Well, ask yourself how might you feel if you were a Jew frequenting these places, establishments on encountering a large cross - many up to 3' long- with a bloodied Christ image hung from it - red paint generously applied to each nail wound.

Sensibly, if you were also aware of the "Christ-killer" meme replete in the German Vรถlkisch tradition (which also gave rise to the Passion Play at Oberammagau) you'd be horrified. In effect, you'd be faced with constant reminders of your "role" in the slaying of Christianity's founder at every turn. Well, why would you need to put up a swastika in that case?

Sadly, those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it, to paraphrase George Santayana. The fact here is that the residents of Garmisch-Partenkirchen if they do have any knowledge of what transpired more than 77 years ago, don't wish it bruited about and they certainly won't repeat it.

That was fine with us, since we enjoyed our time there anyway, both the splendid scenery and the people. We only wished that when we did our various strolls around the twin villages we'd have seen slightly fewer large crosses hanging with bloodied Christs suspended on them! A hundred crosses in each town might be ok, but a thousand? Perhaps overkill! Or still transmitting too powerful a subliminal message to certain others.

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