Saturday, September 16, 2017

( Part 3 of 4 ) What I Learned as an 82-Year-Old Trekker on a Bucket List River Cruise to Germany, Poland, and Czech Republic

By Robert R. Schwarz
v Cruising The Elbe with the Wealthy ( part two )
v An Update on the Berlin Wall and Check Point Charlie  ( part one )
v Luther and a Few things You Might  Not Know about Him and  the Reformation He Ignited ( part one )
v Polish Catholics and Their Hero Pope and the Scars of Communism   ( parts three and four )

                                    Power tends to corrupt and absolute power
                                   corrupts absolutely  ( Letter to Bishop
                                   Mandell Creighton , April 5 , 1887 ) 

Part Three
V    A Pickpocket in Prague; Memories of a Painful Epiphany in Prison; and a Klezmer Dinner in Krakow  


                                 Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest,
                                 whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure,
                                 whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are
                                of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there
                                be any praise, think on these things.  ( Paul  to the
                               Philippians, chapter 4, verse 8…King James version)

            Mary Alice and I arrived in Prague  as fatigued  tourists .With  two knee replacements, my wife  had   wielded a cane from the start, and I , who had been lugging   a  heavy camera bag   in and out of crowded  churches and up and down castle ramparts ,   had been slowed  down to her pace during our half-day walking excursions . All 24  in our group had also been suffering the nuisance of   having to constantly  fidget with the individual  excursion communication devices hung around our necks with dangling  earplug wires.  But we did learn much from  those  comprehensive lectures given by our guides ,  the ones which never seemed to pause even  when we were  crossing busy intersections or entering an elevator or when we  scattered into smaller groups. ( I had to zone out  occasionally from listening to a never-sending  liturgy of history dates . )

One of five guides  we had...

I can think of only one really bad thing that happened to us during the entire trip… Mary Alice and  I  one morning hopped on a tram to do some exploring of this  culturally dynamic Czech Republic city . We were observing how the city center was colored with cement-gray;  its mammoth  buildings loomed as  a  monolith of rectangles which  , except for width and height  , never varied.  Our guides in Berlin , Dresden, and now Prague  had related  how Moscow authorities , when restoring these severely   bombed cities after the war,  imposed  their constrictive  Socialist philosophy of  art and   architecture by often  choosing only one—likely unimaginative—architect to design the entire city's reconstruction .  One of our guides had   pointed to a large area blanketed with  five-story, identical  apartment buildings:  "We call these Commie Condos, "  the guide had said with muffled  mirth.

     Back to that bad thing…At our tram's first stop , a  somewhat shabbily dressed , heavily whiskered man got on at the rear door  and stood close to where Mary Alice and I   were standing  while  looking out a window. At the next stop, the man got off  quickly in  sync with the  jolt of the stopping  tram and  disappeared into  a  dense web of  streets and pedestrians .    A minute later, responding to a conditional reflex that acts up  whenever I am  traveling in city crowds,  I brushed a hand across my  left pocket. My wallet  was gone, along with $150 in Czech money , driver's license, and debit and credit cards ! ( My passport was in a safe on our hotel room , and and within an hour ,   the bank and credit card companies had  cancelled  my passwords . I managed to satisfactorily take care of the rest when I got home.)       

        I was angry about  losing my wallet to someone whom I imagined was now amused by a vision of my anger as he bragged to a cohort about his criminal skills .  I knew I needed an antidote for this anger. Thought-blocking would not work. 

      I did something an hour later  which I was not capable of; I asked God to stir this criminal's  heart  into empathy for me and his past victims  and that this be  followed by a permanent change of heart about  all his criminal behavior . 

Teenagers from South Korea  and their nun music director ( center )
on a European concert tour, stopping over at our hotel  in Prague 

 That same day Mary Alice and I visited the church and monastery  of Our Lady of the  Snows, founded by Emperor Charles IV in the mid-14th  Century. Here I now  thanked God for giving me the willing  spirit to pray for that man on the tram . I recalled the Apostle Paul's words of perennial comfort for those who hit hard  bumps on life's road: All things work for the good for those who love God.            

  Before retiring that night , I  shared all my thoughts with Mary Alice, " You know something, dear, maybe the whole reason for me taking this tour was to …"

            " ...What , Bob? To have your wallet stolen ? " 

            I smiled as she turned off the bed table light. 

A Czech family  in Prague  kindly poses for my camera

There was no road sign  saying "You Are Now Entering Poland"  nor had there been any border-crossing welcome sign during any of our bus rides. Had not two world wars made many Europeans hateful of new, imposed  national  borders ?  Reflecting on border crossings as we exited  the Czech  Republic  rekindled in me  a life-changing epiphany  which   occurred in August of 1950 while in a maximum penitentiary cell in Bratislava, the capital  of what was then named Czechoslovakia .  I was a 25-year-old freelance journalist who had been entrapped into  illegally crossing  this country's border with Austria, believing my late wife Judith  and I were actually entering our destination of Hungary  .  There was no sign, human or otherwise, to be seen. Judith waited in our car while  , with camera in hand and passport left behind in my jacket,  I approached   a weathered , large wooden road block on  an unmarked , deserted  countryside road. I  took a few steps around the barrier and snapped a photo of  a quaint looking  shack about two hundred yards down the  road . Immediately armed Czech ( or Russian) soldiers lunged at me  from a thicket of weeds and seized me and  the camera.

The main square in Krakow 

I was  freed after ten days imprisonment , thanks to Judith's  prompt drive to an American embassy in  Vienna . [ note: my parents received  this telegram from the State Department soon after my release:  "American Embassy Vienna requests inform your son Robert safe and letter will follow…Allyn C. Donaldson, Director Special Consular Services."  ]     But a  much greater freedom had occurred within that  prison cell . Having been intimidated into  signing a long confession which contained not a word in English and being  acutely aware of the current  Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, I feared  I was a likely candidate for one of those  infamous Siberian  concentration camps known as a Gulag.  I paced  the floor ,  in a  desperation foreign to my senses .  I can only describe it by comparing it--as I would later--to the wild mink who,when snared by a trap--has been known to chew off a  leg to gain freedom. 

        Here is that epiphany I noted in a report  several years ago:  
        For the first time in my life ,  I  cried out to God in a  voice with all the honest and sincerity I could muster. " God," I cried, "I promise that if You free me,  I will keep Your  commandments all my life . " 

        The  epiphany  pierced me  so suddenly and  deeply that I was senseless for a long moment.  Then, with  labored breaths of fear and shame,  I realized I was actually trying to con God ! Hiding in a cloud of self-denial, I   had  reverted to my  childhood  strategy of getting my way: say anything and make it believable!  My promise, my sincerity before God was as unreliable as those white-collar professionals, those alcoholics I had written about in articles, those men and women who really  believed they were being sincere and honest when they said ,"Me an alcoholic ? Hey, I can stop drinking anytime I want ."

            Worse though, I now  realized  a  new and  awful truth about Bob Schwarz , this fairly well-behaved journalist with a passion for facts and truth: He  was absolutely incapable of keeping  that promise to obey all those Ten  Commandments for the rest of his life ! Not today or tomorrow nor, maybe, even by next year.

      Coming to terms with that dark side of  my humanity-- which we know all humans struggle with--was a pang of a radical change,  which would , unfortunately,  take years to fully develop. It did, however, immediately created in me a preoccupation with  finding find out how to walk with an  omnipresent, omniscient, and especially omnipotent God.    


Perhaps one of the cutest images among the more than 500 taken 

     Our Viking group spent most of  the next day in Krakow's Jewish quarter and inside 
the   Wawel Castle cathedral , where   Pope John Paul II  delivered homilies as a cardinal. We took photographs of homes where  Max Factor and Helena Rubenstein  had lived and learned, sadly, that the pre-war Krakow   Jewish population before the Holocaust  was  65,000 , and today  is 150. 

             That night we sat down to a Klezmer dinner and heard a trio play  life-celebrating  Yiddish  music. We ate only feet away from the musicians (a woman violinist, a bass fiddle player and an accordionist ) in a small dining room with window views of   narrow cobblestone streets.  Our small room pulsated with a  surreal rhythm of  animated conversations,  a  swaying violinist, and waitresses constantly trotting back and with steins of beer and plates of  turkey meat, cold cabbage covered with a purple vinaigrette,  and chicken broth with matzo balls. Fingers drummed table tops in beat with  Klezmer music.  When we heard the Fiddler on the Roof  melody , " If I  Were a Rich Man," there were murmurs of nostalgia.

     I left my table for a few minutes to get a close look at the photographs  on one wall; two were autographed by  actors Liam Neeson and  Ben Kingsley from the move shot on locations in Krakow,
         Schindler's List .  Also autographed was a  photo of the  movie's director,  Steven Spielberg.  When the conversation at our table turned to the group's morning excursion    to Auschwitz, I mentioned the name of one of my favorite martyred  saints, Fr. Maximilian Kolbe ,  who at that death camp prevailed upon the guards to execute him by starvation in a cell rather than the innocent  family father  condemned to die there .

  On other  walls were maps showing  how the different borders of Poland and the Czech Republic  were often changed by  the whim of power- ambitious  kings and dictators. Such events always forced resettlement of Jewish populations, we learned.    " It made misery and a mess, " the  restaurant manager told me.

At the Klezmer restaurant  

            Mary Alice and I the next day attended a Mass in the St. Francis Basilica, a 17th Century church with soul-stirring  beauty of  enormous oil paintings of religious  scenes,  stone and wood carvings of Biblical saints , and many interior chapels adorned for  centuries with different,  beautiful sacramentals. The knees of countless number of worshipers  through the ages had worn the wooden pew kneelers into concave shapes. At least fifteen  people were waiting outside a confessional for their  turn with a priest.  ( One could only imagine how long this line was when  peoples' virtues were repeatedly tested during the horrors and daily stress of  Nazi and  Russian occupations. ) 

Our Viking group at a holy place in the Krakow Jewish quarter

    Mary Alice leaned her  cane against a pew and suggested we sit for a spell. She was still perturbed from being mooned a few minutes  earlier  by a man  at the church entrance. At the time, I had moved ahead  of her and  did not see the incident but  heard her shout—it echoed through the basilica—" Stop it, you dirty old man!" 

            We left Krakow ,  which  had become our itinerary favorite . Our first stop before  our 300-mile ride to our tour finish line at Warsaw , was the Jasna Gore monastery ,  Poland's holiest shrine and home of the well-known Black Madonna  painting.  While in the monastery,  I became quite impatient with my heart and intellect. I still didn't know exactly why I was here--and there were only a few days left  to find out.  I yearned deeply  to come home with something important to give people even if only a few. Everything  was still nebulous . 

Wawel cathedral ( and castle ) where Pope John Paul II
spent several years as a cardinal in Krakow 

   It didn't help that  I was  discomforted here by the  holiday-like scene  of literally thousands of tourists streaming in and out of the monastery taking photographs—I was , at first , conspicuously  one of them—and queuing up for souvenirs ; I also had been bitten by  some petty  scrupulosity: I didn't like  the several "ticket office " windows here where people were lining  up to leave or record their written  prayers with "prayer agents ."
( photos by the author )

End of Part Three.
 Part Four  will 
appear next week.

All comments are welcome.
© 2017 Robert R. Schwarz

Saturday, September 9, 2017

( Part 2 of 4 ) What I Learned as an 82-Year-Old Trekker on a Bucket List River Cruise to Germany, Poland, and Czech Republic

v Cruising The Elbe with the Wealthy ( part two )
v An Update on the Berlin Wall and Check Point Charlie     ( part one )
v Luther and a Few things You Might  Not Know about Him and  the Reformation He Ignited ( part one )
v Polish Catholics and Their Hero Pope and the Scars of Communism   ( parts three and four )

By Robert R. Schwarz

                                    Power tends to corrupt and absolute power
                          corrupts absolutely  ( Letter to Bishop
                       Mandell Creighton , April 5 , 1887 )  

Part Two

  Mary Alice and I  were  among 91 passengers who proceeded to our rooms on one of  two decks; ours was   on the upper deck near the   lounge , bar and small entertainment platform . Above was the sun deck and captain's bridge , and below us were 14 passenger rooms and the dinning  room. Our room,  for a  river cruise boat,  was typically small though adequately and tastefully furnished. It had a  queen-size bed, bathroom with shower, a closet, and television , which we never watched.

            Feeling  like  a child at an amusement park , I opened our veranda door , stepped outside and surveyed the Elbe and its opposite shore a  few hundred yards away. "Mary Alice, " I said to impress her with  some homework I had   done, " You know this river  here runs from the Czech Republic through Germany to the North Sea . "   No, she didn't know but  informed me that the Elbe  was not a deep river and , because of a recent dry spell , Viking had warned us by email  that we  might have to switch boats to  one which could navigate a shallow river.

Dramatizing   a romance from Martin Luther's life...  
That first night on board, two actresses in medieval costumes  entertained us with a dramatization about the soon-to-be wife of Martin Luther; she  had been  invited in 1525 to her first ball and was stressed over  not knowing what to wear. Soon after the performers' well- earned applause, the Beyla's  whistle blew,  and 32 crew  members from 12 different countries went to  work as we cruised ahead at nine miles per hour..


            One morning while  sailing through a part of German known as " Saxon Switzerland" for  its sweeping vistas of towering rocks and dramatic lookout points,  I took my voice recorder to  the sundeck for an interview with a gregarious and  retired  octogenarian banker from Malta .

          Anthony ( Tony ) R. Curmi is  one of 800 members of a church run by the Augustinian fathers in Malta's 52  Catholic parishes . He is a former treasurer of the Caritas Internationalis, a confederation of 165   social service organizations operating in  over 200 countries and territories worldwide. It is headquartered in the Vatican, where Tony periodically visited for eight years, meeting once with Pope Benedict XVI.

Tony Curmi and wife Joyce ...
    I asked him what role his religion had in his banking career. He   didn't answer until he had cited some facts:  " The church in Malta was   the first [ after the Vatican II Council of  1959  ] to set up old peoples' homes and orphanages," he began.  "In the early eighties,  the church was the first to recognize that Malta had a drug problem, and that it was coming from tourism. We set up a drug rehab program . We also realized that the church in Malta couldn't interfere in everything the state wanted to do . " 

            He paused to introduce me to his wife , Joyce,  who strolled by to take a nearby chair .  "The Malta constitution accepts all religions, " he continued. "Catholicism in Malta is more conservative, but whatever we are, we certainly make it a point of going to church on Sunday. "

            We talked about the defining moments in his  life— there  was a string of them.

             "I was born in the war years. In 1941 or  1942, the Nazis bombed out Malta. Dad had to look  after his two aged spinster aunts plus feed our immediate family of thirteen. That was no joke. I'm sure my parents deprived themselves of food to feed us . So that was transforming. "

Cruising on the Elpe through "Saxon Switzerland" ...
      Tony's  father's sole income at the time was his salary as a senior clerk in the government's education department .  His father e dHe died at age 56 , and his  " heart-broken "  mother passed a year later. " She had disintegrated from all  the hardships ," he said.    "At age 23,  I found  myself head of a family of   seven. Thank God,  I never lost faith. "

            Tony wanted his own family and decided to make banking his career. At age 16, he  recalled, he started as an ordinary bank clerk, " giving " more than 90 per cent of my  salary  to my  father  because he needed it."   

            Nowadays two things  give him pleasure: long walks and, when he can, "serving others." He is saddened by so many people who  are suffering in a world where " peace doesn't exist anymore."    He closed our interview with: " I hope the Lord appreciates what I've done and hope He forgives me for what I haven't done or should have done or done badly.  "      

IV        A Most Unusual Farewell Dinner…Our farewell dinner this night  had more that its usual gourmet delights.  The executive chef , a man of Asian descent, appeared and  announced he had prepared a special dinner to celebrate what  would be  our "wonderful memories of newfound friends. "  Mary Alice and I were sitting next to two of them: Barbara and Aeneid, with

whom  we had laughed  much during our last four days on the boat. Both were widows , good friends, and hailed from the northeast of England where for  eight years they had sung together in a community choir. This was their fifth Viking cruise. Barbara  said she was 37, but with the disclaimer that she also was dyslectic with numbers ." Aeneid claimed to be  85 , but her gift of  humor belied her age by  minus 20 years. Barbara was  prim and proper, an epitome of good manners . Often when she spoke to us,  her British-toned voice demanded  our  attention now matter what she said. In an equally  endearing   manner ,  Aeneid was  a polar opposite , scanning  every face around her before quickly deciding which one she might tease with  her  candid humor. She was  wont to suddenly and playfully wrap an arm around a man—but only if his spouse was at his side—and speak  flirtatious words. Laughter always followed. 

           Yes, it was a special dinner. Every one dressed as Viking had described as country club smart .  Many passengers kept this style all day long. The men tonight  wore  a  variety of collared shirts , slacks , and sport jackets; during the day it was short pants and polo shirts like those seen in the National Geographic  Christmas gift catalog. One woman's  jewelry on this particular night drew this comment from Mary Alice: " Did you see her ring, Bob? Maybe three karats ? " She also remarked about the lady on whose fingers a different jeweled ring appeared every day , and there was  the dowager with a ruby necklace and matching earrings , etc., etc. We share with them their joie de vivre.  

Aeneid (left) and Barbara

          Our  dinner, like  all our meals, was palatial in appearance and service. Appetizer choices were  salmon tartar with baby   greens and a honey mustard dip ;  Tandooru chicken with Parmesan foam;  roasted forest mushroom Velouteʹ and  pumpkin mousse ravioli with lamb loin with sweet chili sauce . Entrees were  surf and turf or sautéed prawns and saffron Beurre Blanc  . Dessert was a traditional apple strudel. A cheese plate with apricot chutney  followed . ( Amen ! )  

  Barbara let me put my voice recorder near her ;  Aeneid just wanted to listen  .

            Me: What joy are you getting out of this night ?
            Barbara:. Friendship.

            Me:  And the highlight of this cruise for you ?
            Barbara:  My birthday. ( the  waiters had sung "Happy Birthday" to her the other day. )

            M.  And the big moment in your life ?
            B. I suppose meeting  my  husband . We had been married  almost 40 years . We had two

            M. Tell me about what makes you happy .
            B. Well, some say the glass in half empty, the others half full. I'm a half-full person. I
            think I inherited my father's sense of humor, and that keeps me going.

            M. And sad ?
            B. (she suddenly began to weep ) The first baby I had, died. And then my husband died   of                      cancer at age 66. We were just looking forward to retirement.

            (  I paused and  held her hand . )

            M.  What do you believe causes so may ills in the world today ?
            B. There are two causes I see in my country: one is selfishness, the other , laziness.

            M.  What can we do about it ?
            B.  Raise our children not to be that way.

            M. What would you like people to say about when you are  gone?
            B. What a colleague of mine told me with flowers in his hand on the day I retired from
                my secretarial work: " I shall always remember you as the lady of love and   
               laughter. " 

                                     Love  is the reason for our existence…We love
                                     what is presented to us to love, and God is not
                                    much presented . It is hard to see  Jesus in the
                                    respectable Christian today as in the man on the
                                    Bowery.  ( Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic
                                    Worker movement. )


                                         In Meissen, Germany, watching some the world's
                                         most expensive porcelain being crafted  by experts... 

   After dinner we walked—slower than usual—up to the lounge .

            Thanks in part  to all the complimentary wine served at dinner, the lounge immediately resounded  and merry conversation and small yet sincere  expressions of spousal love, all  enhanced by a temperate  imbibing of after-dinner drinks and a piano player tickling out decades of favorite melodies.
            Mary Alice and I sat around at a small glass table with Aeneid and Barbara , who revealed  she was an atheist and believed Jesus was only a human  being ;  yet she attended an  Anglican church and  believed in the Ten Commandments and in the existence of a devil or  Satin . I  needed  to  say ,  " Aeneid, whenever I want to head off a debate about religion, especially with a friend,  I give my personal summary of it…  [ I felt my wife's knee bump my leg]   …like  Jesus said , it's all about loving  God with all your might and your neighbor as yourself. "  [ another bump , but Aeneid's face said my words made sense to her ]   A little later, I  suggested she read the book of John in the Bible . She said she would , and several days later informed  me that she had come across  a Bible in the lower dresser  drawer in her room..

     After a few more minutes of the evening's merriment,  my thoughts  began churning about my so-called mission ,what had wished  to accomplish with my camera, voice recorder, and notepad. I had been  busy with all three yet I had yet to see what benefit my effort so far could beyond that of producing just another  travelogue .  Had I been too ambitious , idealistic ?

After dinner music on the Abeyla

            I went on desk to breathe the night air .  I often do this  at home , standing on  our front porch and simply  talking to my God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit while looking up at the night sky. I returned to the lounge a half-hour later and, for some cerebral  relief.

     Only a dozen in our group remained. Conversation had turned louder and   a bit risqué , but all was still country-club  smart. When the piano player dipped into the  romantic and nostalgic piece , Lady in Red, , all other  lounge sounds ebbed  heads nodded slowly in recognition of a melody that brought forth  sweet memories.  A few woman dabbed  their eyes with tissue. Even the foursome who had  been glued to their table playing cards all night, laid down their cards and waxed nostalgic .
            Aeneid sprang to her feet. Wearing a red dress—by coincidence— she paced to the floor and began an improvised dance in harmony with the music , and then behaved like a stripper introducing her act. We loved it, and even more so  when another woman  passenger dressed in red  strolled out to partner with Aeneid .Then Aeneid playfully and seductively  went up to the piano player and wrapped an arm around him as he struggled valiantly to continue playing. Giving gave a long  leash to its decorum, our small audience  howled .

            It was nearing 11 p.m. and I saw a few yawns . All of us need to hear from a different era of  music. I thought of an oldie that mother used to play on her Kimball   spinet in the living room. So I rose and called out to the man at the keyboard, " Play Alexander's Ragtime Band ! " I wasn't sure of the pianist—he was not an American—nor the Brits would even remember this song. But after searching for the melody on the ivories, the pianist finally  struck the right chords,  and  within seconds everyone was wrestling   with the melody and  often  guessing  at the lyrics..  

            Aeneid and Barbara returned to their cabins and Mary Alice and I went to bed. I hated the doubt now rising  in me

( photos by the author and his wife )

End of Part Two.
 Part Three will 
appear next week.

All comments are welcome.
© 2017 Robert R. Schwarz

Saturday, September 2, 2017

What I Learned as an 82-Year-Old Trekker on a Bucket List River Cruise to Germany, Poland, and Czech Republic ( Part 1 of 4 )

           By Robert R. Schwarz
v Cruising The Elbe with the Wealthy
v An Update on the Berlin Wall and Check Point Charlie
v Luther and a Few things You Might  Not Know about Him and  the Reformation He Ignited       
*  Polish Catholics and Their Hero Pope and the Scars of     Communism  
                                         Power tends to corrupt and absolute power
                             corrupts absolutely  ( Letter to Bishop
                             Mandell Creighton , April 5 , 1887 )  

                                    Will you come and follow me if  I but
                                    call your name?
                                    Will you go where you don't know and
                                    never be the same ?
                     Will you let my love be shown,
                         Will you let my name be known,
                                    Will you let my life be grown in you a
                                    and you and me ?
                                    ( from the hymn " The Summons" , text
                                    by John L. Bell, tune by Kelvin Grove )

Part One
I     Why this report and who am I ? …If you're able, take your family to the Berlin Wall and  ask a few questions of those many  strolling  German tourists staring and frowning at this  long  ugly  remnant of Cold War horrors . Ask more questions, then visit a Berlin museum or two,  and you and perhaps your children will know more about how power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
            This is not how I wanted to begin this report ( being a retired newspaper editor , I prefer report to story) . But this Wall thing and other scars from World War II has cast a shadow over my mind ever  since my wife and I returned from Europe,  and I needed to dispel it by digging for  some truth about all this—and about myself as well.
            This was our bucket list trip .  I am 82, my wife 77  , and both  of us have  done our share of global trekking , me in a late  career as a  leadership workshop facilitator for the International Association of Lions Clubs . Mary Alice is    an artist and taught art to  seniors ; no month went by when she didn't let me know her wish of someday taking her first river cruise. I kept telling her we couldn't afford it , but finally relented and said,  "Honey, the only way we  can   justify the price tag on this combination river-land cruise is to make it a  mission  . "  She looked puzzled . "Maybe,"  I said, I would interview people and take photographs  that would somehow  benefit  people  much more than a  travelogue . ( I had been writing a blog  ,  "ExodusTrekkers.Blogspot. com " , for my church parish for almost  ten years; it's read in several European  countries and two in Africa. )  
         Still, I wasn't sure about a lot of things, especially the wisdom of my decision and the  fortitude to carry it  through. I prayed hard  about it.

            II     Checkpoint Charlie and the Brandenburg Gate…On July 4, 2017 ,  the day after our arrival in Berlin, we stood  with Viking  Cruises tour guide Irene Flegel amidst a crowd  staring at a large macabre and crude   artistic piece of graffiti painted  on that infamous  Berlin Wall .
"Help me to avoid this deadly love," our guide explained 
It depicted  a passionate, fraternal kiss on the lips between   Leonard  Brezhnev ( former general secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1964 to 1982 )   and  Erich  Honecker  (  a German politician who, as the general secretary of the Socialist Unity Party, led the German Democratic Republic from 1971 until the weeks preceding the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 ). The graffiti was an accurate rendering of a photograph ( which I have seen )  that captured their kiss   in 1979 during the 30th anniversary celebration of the foundation of the German Democratic Republic. 
      I asked Irene  why  this Wall remnant—today  it meanders like a concrete python  for several blocks  through once were gated  sections of  East and West Berlin during the Cold War—why  is it now  covered with  gruesome paintings and  amateur German abstract art ?
            " There was no reason to paint only flowers,"  she replied  with some sarcasm .  " When the Wall came down in 1989,  everybody in Berlin was confused and said  'I am a painter .' "  I asked for her interpretation of the Brezhnev-Honecker kiss.  "It says to me, O, Lord,  help me to avoid  that deadly love ."   I wanted her to expand on this  but she wanted to keep our excursion group moving. 
This wall was 27 miles long
We followed the 11.8- feet- high Wall to  Checkpoint Charlie , the best known  Wall crossing between the former division of  East and West Berlin .  The original wall was 27 miles long and was paralleled by another wall ; between them was a 160-yard wide  "death strip  that had hundred of watchtowers, miles of anti-vehicle trenches, guard dog runs, floodlights and trip-wire machine guns. I was informed that Soviet security guards then under orders to shoot but not kill anyone trying to defect from East Berlin ,  A German historical research agency, however,  recorded that 100 people were killed during  escape attempts .Many of  the 5,000 who reportedly did escape had been  desperate for relief from the daily  oppressive  lifestyle which Moscow had imposed on them since the end of the war .
" Actor " soldiers at historic  Check Point Charlie
 With its  souvenir   shops  and  a staged elevated  warning sign reading  " You are  about to leave the  American Sector " , Checkpoint Charlie  remains a huge tourist attraction . I photographed a make-believe "checkpoint "  with two Germans dressed in American Army uniforms and flanked by  American flags and wartime protective   sand bags .  For a fee, the "soldiers" would autograph  your passport (a no-no with U.S. Customs ) .
"You are about to leave the American Sector ! "
            A few blocks away was the huge  historical  Brandenburg Gate ,  today an imposing  symbol of  unity and peace and  of the tumultuous history of Europe and   Germany.  It had been a  prized monument of the Nazi party . At this gate during the Cold War the world  heard    President Ronald Reagan   demand  that Soviet Union  government tear down this Berlin wall which it had erected. His televised words were  : Come here to this gate, Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate.!  Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall ! 
Mary Alice and Bob at t he Brandenburg Gate
    Being in Berlin and very near  where once stood   the Reichstag , that infamous throne of demonic Nazi  power  that began rising in the early 1930's,  disturbed me as I then also  thought   of Dresden, the restored  German capital of  Dresden whose streets my wife and I would walk down in a few days.  I reflected on the controversial  American and British air force   bombing that destroyed the entire city center, killing an  estimated 25,000 people.  And there was , of course, a rerun in my mind of the Holocaust. 
...a little humor at the Gate
 I now turned to Irene and had to ask: "Please tell me , Irene, what is the prevailing attitude today among Germans about the fact that six million Jews were exterminated by the  Nazis . " 
            She obviously had been asked this question many  times and so accepted it  calmly . Confident of her  opinion,  she said,  " We will always remember this, but we don't carry any guilt of it. All those Germans were of a different generation than ours. " ( I  would later be told by another Viking guide. that only  ten percent of the German people belonged to the Nazi party , and  that  due to  Nazi propaganda which claimed  Jews were not being treated badly ,  the  German populace   was kept ignorant of the death camps .  I chose not  to argue with  that particular guide. )  
            While packing in our hotel for our motor  coach ride to Wittenberg and then on to Dresden and the Elbe River to board our  cruise ship, I vaguely sensed what might be  my so-called personal mission: Had I not for years   wanted—and needed— to  grasp of my true  relationship with all human beings ?   It was a theological, metaphysical question and likely would sound meaningless, even humorous to most people , including my friends.  How was my soul , the essence of my humanhood,  linked ,    to  the very poor, the very rich, the real bad dudes,  suburbanite sinners like myself,  atheists, Buddhists, Christians of all stripes ?   I had been taught—and do believe—that, as a Christian ,  I and countless other Christians are  members of  The Body of Christ, each given by God a  living function to perform in that Body, with Christ as the Head.    The analogy to a human body  I readily see, but  my day-to-day relationship with members of this Body , in terms of  give-and-take love , has always eluded me. Saying that his Body  is "mystical"  is  insufficient  ! I needed the comfort of truth and of pacifying  the somewhat hyper-analytical mind with which I was born—Alas!—and to share what I finally  grasp  with  my fellow exodus trekkers. ( Going after stories as a young reporter, I sometimes felt like a  Wagon Train scout.  )
            My wife's response that night as she turned off the light ?  " Bob, why don't you just enjoy this vacation. We  both deserve it. "
           It bothered me that she might be right. Was I swimming in waters too deep for me.

III     91 Pampered Souls on the Elbe…Our daylong ride on the bus—Viking prefers " motor coach "—was a refreshing reprieve from the Berlin metropolis . We gazed out of oversized windows while listening to our new guide give endless classroom-like lectures on the history, and culture of Potsdam ( a city of magnificent palaces and the nearby nature Eden of Worlitz)  and Wittenberg, world-wide famous for its birthing of the Reformation sparked by Martin Luther's nailing of his  "95 Theses" to the door of the All Saints church there.
The Elbe River at sunset
     There were   91 of us, mostly American and British citizens who were seniors with spouses ; one couple live in Malta, another in Spain , two were widows. Two men were retired bankers. From casual conversations with several passengers and from the fact that at least five couples had taken  more than two of these five-star Viking trips, I concluded this was a wealthy  group.         

The German shore was never more than a stone's throw away. 
  The bus had a toilet, and we stopped every two hours for a break  and  advised of the usual small but  expected tip to  the washroom  attendant . There was a lot of napping,  a bit  of snoring, all
induced I'm  sure by the seductive charm of the rolling German countryside with its   forests of  thin and  tall pine trees growing unusually close to each other without a sign of a dead or fallen branch.  There were miles and miles of recently  harvested  wheat  fields  and acres of chest-high corn and   hilly sweeps of white poppies.

                                             For by grace are ye saved through faith; 
                                       and that not of yourselves : it is a gift 
                                   of God:  not of works, lest any man
                            should boast . ( Ephesians 2: 8, 9 ,
                               King James version;  also the major
                             theological  proclamation of Martin
                                      Luther and one of his  battle cries  during
   the Reformation . )
A portrait of  Luther in a Wirttenberg church
The church door ( since replaced ) where
Luther nailed his 95 theses
    The Russians had replaced the church door  upon which Luther had nailed those 95 theses but his legacy was seen all over Wittenberg, especially in this year which the city was observing the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Writing these 95 theses ( each was  one sentence long and written in Latin ) ,  we were told , had made Luther a  heretic and fair game for any Catholic outside his principality to kill him . " You have to take care of your heritage , "  our guide Gerbe said, alluding to the age-old conflict between those in government who want change and those who want to protect their heritage.   Thanks to the recent invention of the printing press, the theses flooded Europe within two weeks…" and  the Reformation took off,"  Gerbe said.  Some historians have argued that the Reformation was a precursor to today's theological  disagreements  between Christian denominations .               
Where Luther preached some of his 2,000
  Wittenberg seemed to  vibrate  with Luther imprints , particularly upon the church in which he  had preached 2,000 sermons .  There also is a statue of a Jew milking a pig ; an inscription above it reads , " He is milking a god ." After the war,  the  Wittenberg Jewish population was asked if they wanted the statue removed and ,  though knowing correctly that Luther had had a strain of anti-Semitism, requested that the statue  remain. It was a nuanced reminder  of a lethal prejudice that remains in the world. 
            Among my memories of this city is the tomb of Luther's dearly  loved wife—a nun whom  left her convent  to marry him and whom he called his "morning star; another was seeing the Bible Luther had   translated  from the original Greek into the German vernacular , while taking shelter in the Wittenberg castle.  The New Testament took him 12 weeks, and the Old Testament, with the aid of seven helpers, was a seven-year labor.  " He wanted people to understand their faith, "
Gerbe  told us .

    Our bus took  us within a few yards of the Elbe River and the   Beyla, ,  a three-deck, 361-foot-long river boat and our home for the next five days.  On the gangplank  dressed in white and gold braided uniforms  and with outstretched hands to shake ours stood  Captain Miroslav-Wagner; Janos Olah,  his chief officer;  and   Radim Wajshajtl, a native of Prague and our super efficient  guide and helpmate  during those  frustrating hours after my wallet had  fallen  victim to a pickpocket.
The Beyla captain ( rear ) and his chief officer 
            Wanting to appear cool, I returned  the captain's greeting as might   sea-wise American sailor:  "Permission to come aboard , sir.."   The  captain look at me quizzically . 
( photos by the author, one by his wife )

End of Part One; Part Two will
appear next week.
All comments are welcome.
© 2017 Robert R. Schwarz