I read recently that the largest collector of Nazi memorabilia, strangely enough, comes from the Jewish people. Whether it’s to take the memories of those artifacts out of circulation or for others whose morbid curiosity gets the best of them is certainly open for debate. Nevertheless, our journey started with a visit to Berchtesgaden; a sleepy little town with quaint shops, outdoor cafes and gorgeous views of the Bavarian Alps.
Directly above Berchtesgaden stands Obersalzberg, which was the site of Adolf Hitler’s mountain retreat, the Berghof. When visiting this area, it’s best to hire a private guide who’s well versed on the Third Reich as the German government does not advertise most sites relating to Nazism. In fact, there is a movement to destroy all remnants of Germany’s Nazi past which, would be a shame, if only for historical reasons.
Our drive up to the ruins of the Berghof was eventful, as we trailed an industrial truck emblazoned with the name Mengele on the back. Our guide thought it was quite strange too. Later, I did some internet research and found that Josef Mengele’s father, Karl, ran an agricultural machinery firm that exists to this day.
When we finally arrived at the site, we found an unmarked path that leads into the forest where all that remains is the Berghof’s foundation and Hitler’s secret escape bunker. Our guide showed us the view of the Alps from what was once Hitler’s large, picture window. The countryside here is stunning and it is easy to understand why Hitler chose such an idyllic setting to unwind.
A short walk from the ruins of the Berghof stands the Hotel Zum Turken, which was taken over by Hitler’s private secretary, Martin Bormann, in 1933 after Hitler settled next door. The owner at the time was pressured to sell; however, he refused and was sent to Dachau for three weeks, at which time he recanted. The structure was used by the Nazi security service and had an SS detachment stationed there to guard Hitler. More fascinating are the endless array of underground bunkers that connect to Hitler’s, that would be used during air raids and escape routes.
The documentation center is located a short distance from the site of the Berghof and details in depth Hitler’s rise to power, how the use of Nazi propaganda brainwashed the German people into following such a madman, and illustrates the perfect storm (Germany reeling from its loss of World War I, the punishment that the Versailles Treaty imposed on the German people, and the massive unemployment and depression of the 1930s) which ultimately created the monster known as der Führer.
At the time of our visit (mid-May) the Kehlsteinhaus or as many people know it, “The Eagle’s Nest” was unfortunately closed due to continued snowfall. However, it is something to behold. Commissioned by Martin Bormann in 1937, it was completed in 13 months by workers laboring 24/7, costing 12 people their lives. Hitler thought it beneficial to entertain international dignitaries there, as well as the place where Eva Braun’s sister Gretl was married. Ironically, Hitler only visited 14 times as he was afraid of heights.
Today the Kehlsteinhaus is a restaurant with an outdoor beer garden affording spectacular views of the Alps and Lake Konigsee. The odyssey to get there is worth the price of admission. You are taken by special bus on a 13-foot wide road that climbs 2,600 feet over 4 miles, including five tunnels and one hairpin turn. You then go through an underground passage to an ornate elevator with polished brass, Venetian mirrors and green leather that ascends the final 407 feet. Once there, you can stroll the grounds, have a meal and view the marble fireplace Mussolini gifted to Hitler.
Tom, our trusty guide, also took us to Albert Speer’s former home and studio. Other Nazi leaders’ homes close to the Berghof have since been destroyed, such as the residence of Herman Goring and Bormann.
Take a visit to Muzeum Krakowa, which includes Exhibition Kraków under Nazi Occupation 1939–1945, located in the former administrative building of Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory. As most of you know, Schindler was instrumental in saving over a thousand lives at the hands of the Nazis. The museum is a must-see and is laid out extremely well.
Our last stop was Auschwitz and Auschwitz/Birkenau. We have all seen photos of the camp on television and motion picture dramatizations, but until one actually stands in the middle of it all, it’s very hard to grasp the enormity of the genocide that took place here. The first part of the Auschwitz complex includes the brick barracks, which were originally built for the Polish army. They were well-constructed and have remarkably stood the test of time. Here, there are sobering exhibits of the victims’ belongings such as suitcases, shoes, prosthetics and eyeglasses. The hallways are peppered with black and white photos of prisoners, including dates of their incarceration as well as the dates of their deaths. Other parts of the exhibit details the prisoners’ living conditions, punishment rooms, Block 10 where Mengele did his medical experiments, and the courtyard wall where many prisoners were taken out and shot. Moving on to Birkenau which was the extermination camp, one is consumed by the sheer size of the camp: It goes on as far as the eye can see. Whether you are Jewish, Catholic or of any faith, everyone should eventually visit this place to honor and respect the victims and the families who still, to this day, feel the repercussions of Nazi genocide.
Richard Atkins is a playwright, actor, pianist, photographer and travel writer and can be reached at: [email protected].
IF YOU GO
Tom Lewis –certified guide for Third Reich themed tours by the Munich-Berlin Institute for Contemporary History. [email protected]
Oskar Schindler Museum – https://www.muzeumkrakowa.pl/exhibitions/krakow-under-nazi-occupation-1939-1945
Auschwitz Birkenau Memorial and Museum