Thursday, May 31, 2007

Wetzlar - home of the Leica Camera

In the early seventies, I visited Wetzlar from time to time - more specifically, I visited the Ernst Leitz Company, which happened to be in town. Wetzlar is close to the line that formerly divided East Germany from West Germany and the city had the good fortune to fall into West Germany during the carve up by the Allies after WWII, making is accessible throughout the cold war. A second outcome of WWII was a huge increase in population owing to the huge number of displaced persons and the flood of refuges from the east. Pre-war, population had been around 16,000 - by 1955 it was over 30,000. From it's beginnings in 1845, the the Leitz company underwent numerous name changes, finally settling on the name Ernst Leitz in about 1870 - a name that then endured for seventy years or thereabouts. From day one, company products were based in optical engineering, first telescopes, then microscopes and eventually evolving, in the 1920's, to still cameras. The major claim to fame of the first camera produced by the company was in the use of standard sprocketed 35 mm cinematography film - a tiny picture format compared to contemporary cameras - with image quality maintained by superb Leitz lenses made just for that purpose. The name chosen for the camera, Leica, was derived from LEItz CAmera and this name eventually eclipsed the company name. Further, the camera's concept eventually eclipsed the entire camera market being, as it was, the archetypal 35 mm still camera. Thirty-five years ago, Wetzlar was something of a backwater, a quiet rural town, seeming somewhat isolated from the world at large. Today, with a population of more than 50,000, it appears much more in the mainstream and also to be relatively prosperous, certainly so when compared to cities further east. Wetzlar is on the river Lahn, has the obligatory hill, steep roads, narrow streets, a castle and a cathedral - just about everything the ideal European town could desire. The old town in fact, is a fine example of history in the remaking - streets cobbled with pristine precision, walls and buildings perfectly patched, a plethora of lamp posts more elegant than functional, pedestrian areas cordoned off by ranks of traffic bollards, roofs decked out with high-tech composition shingles, buildings painted in startlingly colorful DuPont emulsions, utilities neatly routed underground, an excess of upscale sidewalk cafes and, of course, a smattering of tee-shirt, post card, ice cream, fudge and souvenir shops, all conspired to exude a vague déjà vu of a sterile Theme Park. In truth, every town or city we visited that had more than a few old buildings, radiated a similar air of unreality. Anyway, enough adulation of the tourist industry. Following are a few snaps of places about town.

The Lieca plant can now be considered squarely in the 21st
century having a McDonalds sign right across the street

A few hundred yards down the street from Leica is
this view of the Old Town across the River Lahn

Bonus picture - unusual building and a narrow street!

Impeccable pastel painted portals on steep cobble street

Detail of previous building

Wending through town is a maze of
extremely steep and often narrow streets

More manicured mansions around a major square

Tiny street off the corner of the square

Looking back down the narrow road

At the rear of many of the show buildings,
some were really showing their age

Crafted in Wetzlar by unhurried hands, the sandstone
cathedral, begun in the 1200's is still unfinished. At the
left of the picture, the base of the incomplete second
tower can be seen. No date for completion is available

Cathedral interior - relatively spartan, typical of Germany

On the river walk from campsite to town, Poppa Duck
was seen helping Momma Duck with the chores

After our poor experiences with German cuisine, we were
pleased to find the campsite restaurant run by a Greek
family. The Lady of the house certainly provided an
enjoyable meal

Romrod, Central Germany

Romrod is a little town of about 3,000 people in Hessen region, the heartland of central Germany. Better yet, it happened to be on our route and hoved into view around lunchtime - a perfect venue for our cheese sandwich and cup of tea party, and it was immediately added to our itinerary. Not much more than a crossroad today, Romrod was originally built on the crossroad of the People's Way and the Kurze Hessen army road and the castle made its first appearance in the 12th century. Romrod was part of Eastern Germany and, after reunification, the castle was acquired by the German Foundation of Conservation of Monuments in 1996 and today operates a hotel. Not a whole lot else going on in this little berg.

Another decorated house. No explanation
of these heiroglyphs was found

The town butcher across the street from the church

Local fare was available if desired

The rear of the once moated castle

Castle main tower from the courtyard

The castle church can be seen outside the courtyard

Front entrance of the church, sadly securely locked

Rear of the small church

Right across the street from the castle was this farmyard

Wednesday, May 30, 2007


A few days before the November 11th 1918, Armistice Day - the official end of WWI - and a few days after a rash of mutinies by German soldiers and sailors, the German Empire collapsed and the Kaiser abdicated. Confusion reigned as groups ranging from communists to kings vied for political supremacy and Berlin, the capital, was so beset with riots and civil unrest that the National Assembly agreed to meet in Weimar, 140 miles to the southwest. The National Assembly, made up of elected representatives of the threee largest parties, took until June of the following year to produce a new Constitution. Thus was formed the German Reich, itself a misnomer, since the new Constitution described a Republic and the closest translation of Reich is Empire. Notwithstanding, this was the embryo of a new Germany and the Government was re-established in Berlin. The Weimar Republic, by which this period is generally known, never actually existed, being just a convenient name used by Historians to clarify which Reich is being referred to. Although the "Weimar Republic" was not officially rescinded until after WWII, it was effectively shredded by Adolf & Co. in 1933. It is ironic then, that Weimar became a significant center for the Gestapo, the secret police branch of the despotic SS, and that one of the earliest concentration camps, Buchenwald, was established just outside of town in 1937. Buchenwald was not a death camp like Auschwitz and others, but was designated as a labor camp in which imprisoned students, dissidents, foreigners and anyone else who was "in the way", were used as slave labor for local industries including the assembly of armaments. Particularly despised groups were assigned to heavy labor tasks with the successful intention of being literally worked to death while members of other unfortunate groups, Russian soldiers for example, were in fact murdered upon arrival at the camp. Yet others were the subjects of medical experimentation. From 1937 to 1945 about 250,000 prisoners in total were unfortunate enough to experience this camp and an estimated 56,000 of these died there.

The SS Administration Building

View from main entry gate house which contained a dozen
"death cells". Outside the fence and a watchtower can be
seen along with one of the maintained buildings

The first commander of the camp, Karl Otto Koch, who was
later imprisoned in Buchenwald after being arrested by the
Gestapo for forgery, embezzlement, mismanagement, and
insubordination, built this small zoo for his children just
outside the camp fence. Koch was finally put to death in 1943
for his crimes - crimes against the Nazi regime, that is

The induction center and crematorium today

The crematorium on April 11th 1945 when
the Americans liberated the camp

Jena, home of Carl Zeiss Optics

Jena, a city of about 100,000 people, is in the Thuringia region of Germany and became the home of the Carl Zeiss Optic Company in 1848 when the company was founded by Carl Zeiss and two others. At the end of WWII, Jena was briefly under US control but was subsequently ceded to the Soviets as part of Eastern Germany. At that time, the Zeiss operation was split up, with the Americans taking a group of optical specialists to Oberkochen and restarting the business there, while the Russians moved everything else - people and equipment to Kiev in Russia. The two companies co-existed throughout the cold war era and went in quite different business directions.
The most prominent building in Jena is probably what has come to be known as the Jen Tower - another political monument to urban ugliness. Built in the early seventies, it seems to have been a solution in search of a problem for a while, as it changed names several times, making its purpose unclear. Nowadays it appears to be gainfully occupied, although it still does not blend too well with the rest of the city. The Zeiss company is back in town - with reduced significance - and the entire area is fast emerging from it's forty year sentence of socialism as a technical center for electronics and light engineering. A pleasant place for an overnight stay and a great dinner at a Russian Restaurant.

Jena church

The old Town Hall on the market square

Another view of the market square

Johann Friedrich - possibly the Dean of the
University in the early twentieth century

A Guinness outlet - a real social gem!

The Volkhaus, 1903, at the north end of town

Next to the Volkhaus stands another elegant traditional building

Across the street from the Volkhaus is Carl Zeiss Street

A detail from a corner of the Carl Zeiss building

The Rapid Response Team assisting an errant parker

The campsite office and breakfast room. Not untypical
of the "getting by" condition of many businesses yet to
benefit from the improving economy

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Dresden - Back from the Edge of Doom

In February 1945, a few months before the end of WWII hostilities in Europe, Allied Command decided to bomb Dresden, Germany, for maximum terror effect and to render the city non-functional. Prior to the war, Dresden, which is near the eastern extreme of Germany, had a population of around 650,000 and had remained thus far, virtually untouched by the war raging across other parts of Europe. German air defenses by this time had been reduced almost to ineffectiveness making the mission militarily viable and, more compelling, the Red Army was advancing rapidly on Dresden from the east - a situation that mightily alarmed both England and the USA. With a flood of refugees fleeing before the Russians, the population of Dresden, unknown with any real accuracy, was estimated to at least have doubled. And bomb it they did. Two waves of aircraft, each around 800 planes, rained incendiary devices on the city and met the objective of creating a firestorm. In such a cataclysm, super-heated air rushes upward, drawing in fresh air from around the base creating with air speeds approaching those in a small tornado. Temperatures rise to the point that unexpected items, such a black-top roads, burst into flames and the winds effectively suck everything that is not nailed down toward the fire center, including people. Estimates of loss of life from this event, vary from 35,000 to as many as 100,000. Less uncertain, was the almost total destruction of eight hundred years of history, historical edifices and artifacts. Overall, not a highpoint for humanity. After WWI, the charred remnants of Dresden fell under the control of the Soviets where it remained, as part of East Germany, for more than 40 years. During his tenure with the KGB, Vladimir Putin was posted to Dresden from 1985 to 1990. Following German reunification in 1990, Dresden has fairly risen from the ashes to become a major economic and cultural center for the Saxony region of Germany. A massive program has been underway for many years rebuilding many of the lost palaces and hotels with the same materials and techniques that were used originally. In completed areas, it is not easy to tell old from new leaving one with a vague feeling of staged history. One result for sure - it sure pulls in the tourist dollars!

Dresden New Town is on the north bank of the Elbe while
the old town is on the south side. This gilded statue of
Augustus the Strong
, known as the Golden Rider, is at
north end of the Augustus Bridge

The Finance Ministry looks over the river from the north bank

Also on the north bank is the Saxony Chancelry

A New Town church viewed from the south bank

Old Town view. Somehow, for our needs, Dresden lacked
excitement and focus. While it has all the requisite parts,
for us, it just didn't seem to "work"

Church of Our Lady from the north bank

Semper Opera House

Detail from opera house facade

Catholic Cathedral by George's Gate

Maintenance on Catholic Cathedral
tower - rather them than me!

Castle Clock Tower from outside Old Town

George's Gate entry to Old Town

Detail of the triple George's Gate

Stable yard of the Castle inside Old Town

Castle Street

Old Town renovations with a church and
the old town hall in the background

At the south end of Old Town is a mixture of the new and the old

Here, the Kurlander Palace is under construction, on
it's way to becoming another "historic monument"

A couple of recently completed pieces of history

This one is set to have it's Grand Opening in October 2007

At last, a narrow street, this one leading
to the Church of Our Lady

The Church of Our Lady

Matin Luther - the original - statue in
the square by the Church of Our Lady

A popular promenade along the south bank is Bruhlisch Terrasse.
Shown here is the Neue Standehaus which stands at one end

The Art Academy

The Albertinium Museum

Albertinium Dome detail

Seems no end to the imagination of the mimes

Dresden tram and general overhead clutter

Red-Green transportation. Useful way to be driven
around in a pedestrian restricted area

A less propitious way of traveling, these emergency vehicles,
with their obnoxious sirens, seemed to be forever rushing
back and forth

Meanwhile, back at the campsite, we could not help admiring the
ingenuity of some campers as they endeavored to stretch space

These guys seemed to be out of ideas, though

On the other hand, these folk more than made up for it

A wonderful double-deck arrangement,
complete with patio dining area