Exploring Vienna

We got up early to get ready for what turned out to be a big day. We took a tram to a more central part of the city and walked around for a while in search of breakfast. We picked a cafe where we could sit outside, but it was so windy! Things kept blowing away and it turned into a pretty bad hair day quickly, but we still enjoyed our rolls with jam and hot chocolate with whipped cream.

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Then we took the train and went to see the famous Schönbrunn Palace, which was the home of members of the Hapsburg monarchy for hundreds of years. The impressive 1,441-room palace was built to its present form in the mid 1700s and was given to the Empress Maria Theresa as a wedding gift. Together, Maria Theresa and her husband Francis I, the Holy Roman Emperor, had sixteen children. The Empress faced a lot of pressure to produce a male heir and had to send many of her children away because of marriage negotiations with other political powers – an example is her daughter Maria Antonia, more well known as Marie Antoinette, who was married to Louis, the Dauphin of France, and later executed by guillotine.

Franz Joseph I and his wife Elisabeth also lived in the palace. The couple suffered many tragedies throughout their marriage, which began when Elisabeth was only 16 years old. Elisabeth struggled throughout the marriage with adjusting to court life and often refused to eat, fell ill, and disappeared traveling – especially after the death of their first daughter. The Emperor’s brother was executed in 1867, the couple’s son committed suicide in 1889, and in 1898, Elisabeth was assassinated. It is said that after his wife’s death, Franz Joseph told relatives that they could never know how much he loved her.

Needless to say, the Schönbrunn Palace is full of history and complicated truths of a very powerful family.

This photo is only of the side of their home:

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By the time we arrived at the palace, it was very crowded with tourists. It was confusing where we needed to go and what kind of tickets to buy, but in the end we figured it out. We had an hour and a half to wait before our tour inside the palace started. So we decided to look around the outside, which was so beautiful with elaborate gardens, fountains, and statues. The attention to detail was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.

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This fountain alone is the size of a small house:P1010745

It’s hard to imagine people actually lived and walked around here calling it home.

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We also were able to see the garden maze that was designed and built as a form of entertainment for the Hapsburg family.

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But the maze was a little too complicated for us to figure out! It was over 90 degrees outside with the sun beaming on us and we wandered around the maze with no luck finding the right way to go. We finally gave up to go see the inside of the palace.

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When we finally were able to tour the inside of the palace, I was extremely impressed. We weren’t allowed to take photos, unfortunately, so I can’t show you what it looked like, but just imagine huge rooms with giant windows and attention to detail on every centimeter. The furniture was hand carved and elegant looking with only the best materials. Some rooms even had gold built into the walls’ designs. Table settings with expensive and beautiful china was put on display. The paintings hanging on the walls were also stunning and decorative, each with their own story. We were able to listen to an audio tour all about each room, who stayed there, stories of the family, and who built what within the palace. Mozart even performed here as a child. The views from the windows of outside were breathtaking.

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After touring what seemed like a small section of the palace in regards to how large the entire building is, we decided to head over to the Vienna Zoo (Tiergarten Schönbrunn)! 

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This is the oldest zoo in the world and was built in 1752! It was designed by Adrian van Stekhoven after being ordered by the Holy Roman Emperor, Francis I, to serve as an imperial menagerie. The zoo was then centered around a pavilion meant for imperial breakfasts with the then thirteen animal enclosures. The zoo was first opened to the public in 1779 and even had no entrance fees. Today the zoo is a center for species conservation and provides plenty of educational opportunities. Some buildings within the zoo have been preserved from the Baroque era and complement the modern architecture.

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The zoo has a huge variety of animals and is one of the biggest zoos I’ve ever been to. I was surprised by the size of the location considering how old it is and that it exists within a major city.

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We loved looking at all the different animals!

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The zoo is even one of the few zoos in the world to house giant pandas!

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The zoo has games for children and many educational exhibits.

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And, of course, they have ice cream! Definitely mandatory on a hot day!

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So we had a blast checking everything out, but we were exhausted by the end of it. Both of us struggled to walk to the train and find our way back to the hotel.

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I went straight to bed when we got back and napped because my whole body hurt after the day’s adventures. After resting for a short bit, we decided we had both recovered enough to get dressed up and try to find something for dinner.

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We searched on tripadvisor and found a Mexican restaurant that ended up being delicious!

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The restaurant, Taqueria Los Mexikas, is a small place, but the people running it are so nice and the food is amazing!

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We enjoyed our meal, then headed into the main part of the city again. In the station, a couple was fighting horribly on the escalator. The man stormed off after screaming at his wife. Their children looked mortified and uncomfortable. When we headed back to the hotel at the end of the night, we saw this same family again all smiling as though they were having the best vacation of all time – except you could see in the wife’s eyes how sad she was.

We found a good frozen yogurt place and enjoyed our treats outside as we talked about the day. You can never have enough desserts!

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We were both so tired by the time it got dark out, we decided to head back to the hotel. On the train, this really gross looking old man leaned over and asked us if we wanted to get a beer with him. Katharina was quick to say no in a pretty harsh way, which I was grateful for because the guy looked like a total creep. We both felt really uncomfortable and quickly got off the train and ran all the way to our hotel laughing. Katharina said maybe next time we shouldn’t dress up, which made me feel kind of bad because she is right in some way, but at the same time women should be able to dress nicely without worrying about the threat of men.

When we finally made it back to the hotel, we both quickly collapsed in bed and talked a lot about other creepy stories about men, like this stalker I once had at my physical therapy place. We talked about our plans for the next day and were excited because we were going to see the city Bratislava!

Next Stop – Vienna!

Prague was incredible – we saw so much, had a lot of fun, and also had truly touching experiences. We were both really looking forward to heading to Vienna to see another new city.

I couldn’t sleep our last night in Prague and woke up early before the alarm went off. I was happy to be able to catch up with some friends (benefits of having friends around the world in different time zones). We packed up and got ready before having breakfast at the hotel. We checked out early and were relieved the main station was only about a 10 minute walk because our backpacks felt extra heavy that morning. When we got to the station, unfortunately, they didn’t post the platforms trains would be on until 15 minutes before their scheduled departures. We were close to an hour early so we walked around the station with all our things and found a grocery store and bought some snacks and water for the four hour train ride.

When we found the train we were excited to see it was a little more modern and actually had air conditioning! We found our seats easily and were relieved to have reservations again because it was another crowded train! We had an Israeli family of seven around us who were really nice and so excited about their trip to Vienna. I slept on and off throughout the ride and enjoyed all the beautiful scenery as we passed many small towns. This train ride went by quicker than most others on our trip.

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So my first impressions of Vienna – stunning architecture, so easy to figure out the train system (everywhere felt easier than Berlin), and our hotel was really nice. We were happy to find our room super clean and comfortable. Of course our beds were made before we got there, but we couldn’t help move in quickly!

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We took a train into the main part of the city and walked around checking everything out. We went to a nice Italian restaurant that’s all over big cities in Europe called Vapiano. We ordered delicious pasta and enjoyed it outside! It was wonderful to sit by the street, talk about everything, and people watch. There were street performers nearby playing beautiful classical music on their violins so it felt like a perfect European dining experience.

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While we walked around the city, we saw so much and had a blast! What blew me away over Vienna was just how much existed – that around every corner was another incredible building or statue.

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The detail of the statues was overwhelming:

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The Hofburg Imperial Palace has been an important part of the Austrian government since it was built in the 13th century. Some members of the Hapsburgs family and even rulers of the Holy Roman and Austro-Hungarian empires have lived here. It is now the home to the President of Austria and is a museum.

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The Maria- Theresien-Platz and Memorial is a monument for Empress Maria Theresa that was commissioned by Franz Joseph I and unveiled in 1887.

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And we passed by a few art museums:

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We found a delicious frozen yogurt stand and enjoyed a treat while watching everything going on around us:

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And the walk back managed to be even more beautiful as the sun started to set:P1010696 P1010695

As we headed back and walked through the busy city streets, a man approached us asking for the time. We quickly said we didn’t know and kept walking. This is one of those moments where you’re not sure if it’s a sincere question or a guy trying to pickpocket. You never know who could be a thief. Once when I was traveling in Italy with my dad, he suddenly pulled someone’s hand out of his pocket on a crowded tram – the hand belonged to a young mother with two babies (not who you typically expect to be stealing).

We also had men whistling at us and calling out as we walked back to the hotel, which is always an uncomfortable experience, but even more so in a different country when you’re two women alone. We were so happy to make it back to our room and I think we both were able to sleep so well after the long day!

Our Second Day in Prague

We were thrilled to wake up the next morning and see that the sun was shining and the rain had stopped! We decided to get up early and get started on our day because we had a lot of plans. We ate a quick breakfast in the hotel, then headed out to the Old Town Square on our way to the Jewish Quarter. What a different experience this was from the night before! We were out early, like around 8 in the morning, so there were practically no tourists anywhere – very unlike the previous night when you couldn’t walk without touching someone else. And boy was it suddenly even more beautiful when it was empty and sunny!

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We both were so relieved to be able to take some nice photos, have more of a personal experience, and not be so stressed about pickpockets within the huge crowds.

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We made our way to the Jewish Quarter, a section of the city surrounded completely by the Old Town. It’s believed that Jews settled in what is now Prague as early as the 10th century. The first crusade and pogrom occurred in 1096 and then Jews of the area settled into a concentrated area within a walled ghetto. In 1389, one of the worst pogroms occurred in which 1,500 were murdered on Easter Sunday. Towards the end of the 16th century, Mordecai Maisel became the Minister of Finance and extremely wealthy – he used his money to help further develop the ghetto and make it more prosperous. In 1850, the quarter was renamed “Josefstadt,” or Joseph’s city, after Joseph II, the Holy Roman Emperor who emancipated Jews with the Toleration Edict in 1781. Between 1893 and 1913, a lot of the quarter was demolished and only six synagogues, the old cemetery, and the Old Jewish Town Hall remained – those are now all part of the Jewish Museum in Prague, which is where we went to visit that morning.

The Museum was founded in 1906. We were able to look around multiple old synagogues (unfortunately no photos were allowed in some). One that really impressed me was the Pinkas Synagogue in which the walls are entirely covered with tiny written names of those who had been killed in the Holocaust. There are 77,000 names of perished Bohemian-Moravian Jews on the walls as a memorial.

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We were able to walk through the Old Jewish Cemetery, which was used from the 1400s until 1787. It is unclear how many people were buried here and how many grave stones there are because several layers of tombs exist. The people who once lived here were only given so much land in the city and more land cost more money, so they used what they had. It has been estimated that around 100,000 people have been buried here with approximately 12,000 visible tombstones. The oldest grave in the cemetery is for the rabbi and poet Avigdor Kara from 1439. There are 12 layers of graves.

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One of my relatives, a great x11 step-grandmother from the early 1600s, is actually buried here:Hendl-Basevi-tombstone

The synagogues have beautiful detail in the architecture:

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After seeing so much, we kept walking and suddenly the rest of the tourists were out and about. We walked past the entrance to the synagogue as we left and the line was so long! When we had arrived there was one other person there. Sometimes it’s worth getting up early.

We walked across a bridge towards the Prague Castle and the views were breathtaking.

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We took a seat by the water to absorb everything around us. It was wonderful to just relax and enjoy the moment and take everything in. That’s definitely one of my favorite parts of traveling.

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Then we decided to walk towards famous Charles Bridge. Its construction began in 1357 and it was the only means of crossing the Vltava River until 1841. It was once the most important connection between the Castle and the Old Town.

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But as we were walking we stumbled upon the Franz Kafka Museum! As an English major, of course I have read and written about some of his work and I really enjoyed it. Kafka was born in Prague and it was exciting to see a place dedicated to him.

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And of course we couldn’t help but laugh at the goofy statues relieving themselves outside the museum:

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We finally got to the Charles Bridge and it was a mob scene of tourists! We had been warned to watch our pockets and purses very carefully while walking there because it is a pickpockets dream location. People were trying to sell things, street performers were everywhere, and people stopping for photos when there was no real place to stop among the crowds.

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Although it was beautiful, I think we both felt a little overwhelmed by crowds – especially with the contrast to our peaceful morning, so we walked back to the hotel to grab lunch. I needed a little more money so I went to an atm, but my card was repeatedly declined without reason. This is always scary and stressful, but happens often during travels. I called my bank and probably sounded a little frustrated, but it turned out it wasn’t my card or my account, just something strange about that specific atm machine with relation to my card. It sucks but there’s not much you can do. Luckily I had leftover euros and because of the major tourism in Prague I was able to get by with that the rest of our visit and my cousin was helpful in the situations where euros didn’t help.

So we ate a quick and easy lunch because we had scheduled a tour with Prague All Inclusive Tours to visit Theresienstadt, an extremely moving experience that deserved its own post. We had made reservations on our own and not through the hotel the day before. Visiting a place like this is something you can do on your own, but we figured it was worth going through a group – one of the only times our entire trip we did that. The tour guide actually picked us up from our hotel and then we got on a van with only 6 other people. It was an hour long ride outside of Prague to Theresienstadt and the whole way we were given tons of historical and background information, so we really learned a lot before we even got there. We saw a cemetery, museums, the camp, the ghetto, and an exhibit of artwork made by the Jews forced to live there. We even heard a recording of children singing a song composed by someone who had lived there – all of those children were eventually murdered, so this was haunting to hear.

Our tour guide was fantastic and we met some interesting people throughout the day including a father and son from Los Angeles who had been biking around Eastern Europe. We were really moved by the day and everything we experienced, but it was mentally draining and we both fell asleep on the ride back to the hotel.

After resting some, we decided to eat dinner at the hotel because we both felt a little too exhausted to try and find dinner. It turned out to be significantly cheaper than the night before, something that doesn’t usually happen when you eat at a hotel versus venturing out. While we ate our meal, we planned our next day and which trains to take.

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Then we decided to head out and walk around a little to relax as the evening kicked in. We tried some traditional baked goods that were yummy and very sweet.

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And we ate them while watching a street performer sing and play guitar (typical European tourist moment).

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Then we looked at all the shops nearby that were slightly tempting:

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There were homeless people everywhere and police monitored the area a lot because of how infamous it is for theft and pickpockets. We were happy to get back to the hotel, clean up, and get to bed because we had more adventures waiting for us the next day!

Theresienstadt

Before I tell you about our second day in Prague, I want to write specifically about one of the places we visited during our time in the Czech Republic – Theresienstadt, or the Terezin ghetto and concentration camp. As I’ve mentioned many times before in other posts, I have deep connections to the Holocaust with my family’s history, but this was the first time I actually went to a ghetto and concentration camp from the Holocaust. This wasn’t just a ghetto or concentration camp though, this was the ghetto where my relatives had been sent before being murdered here or in other concentration camps. To walk in this place, to hear how people were forced to live and under what conditions, to see what was done to them – it’s incredibly terrifying and disturbing, but then to have to understand that members from your own family were some of those people, that’s just something words cannot actually describe.

The buildings used for the concentration camp and ghetto were fortresses constructed in the late 1700s, but by the end of the 19th century they were no longer used as forts. The Theresienstadt concentration camp and ghetto were established by the SS in World War II in this fortress and garrison city of Terezin. In 1941, Siegfried Seidl, the first camp commandant, oversaw the labor of 342 Jewish artisans and carpenters, known as the Aufbaukommado, who were forced to convert the fortress into a concentration camp.

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In 1942, the Nazis expelled 7,000 non-Jewish Czechs who had been living in Terezin so that they could close off the town and make it a place to send and hold Jews. In the ghetto, 50 people would be forced to live together in one dorm room with one person as the head of the room. Men and women, including those who were married, had to live separately. Imagine being an adult, even elderly, and having to give up everything and move into a situation where someone else was the boss of you, living with 49 other people in small quarters, having no privacy or space. Lice spread typhoid and other infectious diseases. But this was only the beginning.

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More than 33,000 people lost their lives in this concentration camp. Some died from sadistic treatment of their captors, others died from malnutrition after being starved, or from disease because of the unsanitary conditions. According to official records, the highest documented number of people in the camp was in September 1942 with 58,491 people. They were crowded into barracks designed for 7,000 troops.

Each room like this one would only have one bucket or toilet and a tiny stove for heat with dozens of prisoners sharing the space.

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Over 150,000 people, including tens of thousands of children, were kept in Theresienstadt for months or years before being sent to their deaths at Treblinka and Auschwitz extermination camps in Poland. These aren’t just numbers though – that large of a number is abstract and difficult to really comprehend, but some of these people were my relatives. My great grandparents and great-great grandparents were here.

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Towards the beginning of the camp and ghetto’s existence during the war, prisoners were actually given three small meals a day, but as time went on and more people arrived, it went down to eventually being only one cup of water turnip soup and 200 grams of bread a day (that’s as little as 2 slices of bread). People often became half their weight within the camp due to the combination of the inhumane amounts of labor and lack of food. Survivors described how every morning dead inmates would be found after waking-up time.

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Theresienstadt is infamous for this phrase being posted over the entrance that translates as “work will set you free.”

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People’s clothing was burned for diseases, but with the unsanitary and inhumane living conditions, diseases like Typhoid were inevitable.

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Doctors were not actually allowed to treat Jews, but some did in secret. If surgeries had to be completed, doctors had no real supplies and had to use razors and saws or whatever they could find.Surgeries were performed in cells like this one without anesthesia:

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There was a small room originally used for solitary confinement. Later on the guards would force 100 people into this tiny room that only had a hole as big as my hand for air. They would lock them in there overnight where many people died from lack of oxygen.

The prisoners of the camp were allowed to shower once a week. But when they showered, 100 people were squeezed into one large room, they were given 3 minutes to share one small shower head with 5 other people. The water would start semi-warm at the beginning, but get colder until there was no heat for the prisoners. Jews were always made to go last, meaning they always had to shower in freezing water. Most people today cannot shower for three minutes alone, imagine sharing it with 5 other people in a room with 100 people for just those three minutes. Important note – these showers were actually showers and never used as gas chambers.

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The guards forced prisoners to build a large water storage unit for firefighting purposes. Inmates were only given spoons or just their bare hands to build it. 60 people died during the process. After it was completed, the guards just used the massive water unit as a swimming pool on hot days.

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On November 11, 1943 the commandant Anton Burger made the entire camp population, around 40,000 people, stand in the freezing weather in order to do a camp census. 300 prisoners died that day from hypothermia.

In the fall of 1944, Nazis began the liquidation of the ghetto. Prisoners were transported to Auschwitz for Sonderbehandlung, or “special treatment.” This meant the immediate gassing of all upon arrival. It only took one month to deport 24,000 people to their deaths. 88,000 in total were transported to Auschwitz, Treblinka, or other camps. My relatives were some of these people.

They had executions in the camp as well where people were forced to lie down in these cross shaped boxes and soldiers would stand high on the hills (you can see in the background of the photo) and would use the people in the boxes as target practice. 50 people were shot here within one hour on May 2nd before the end of the war.

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When prisoners were brought through this tunnel, they knew they were going to be killed. Actually walking that path decades later was a very intense experience.

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Many of the bodies of victims who died within Theresienstadt were cremated:

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The Germans presented Theresienstadt to outsiders as a model Jewish settlement during a 1944 Red Cross visit and in a propaganda film. For example, there was a room of sinks and mirrors created so Nazis could claim to the Red Cross that they even had a barber shop area in the camp to present how clean and sanitary the camp was.

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The Red Cross never actually got to see the camp though, they only saw the ghetto section of the town and got an illusion of what was really going on. At the end of our visit we were able to see parts of that propaganda film shown to outsiders that was made to prove Theresienstadt was not a bad place to be. They showed Jewish families playing soccer together, laughing in the sunshine with their yellow Stars of David sewn to their clothing. They intentionally picked very stereotypical looking Jews to emphasize their underlying messages.

During our visit, we watched another film in which they read off statistics of different trains that took victims to the death camps from Theresienstadt. Each train began with 1,000 people on it and then the number of survivors after the war was over would be read. By the end of the war, most of the original 1,000 was within the range of 0-5 survivors. This was intensely powerful to listen to. Over and over hearing 1,000 people sent to this camp, 1 person survived. 1,000 people sent to this camp, 2 people survived. 1,000 people sent to this camp, 0 people survived. After hearing over a dozen of these numbers, I felt sick because it really is incomprehensible. And this was after these people had survived such a horrific place already.

This is what the ghetto town looks like today. Just looking at this photo, it’s nearly impossible to imagine what happened here a few decades ago:

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We were able to see a cemetery where many of the victims’ remains or ashes have since been buried. As Jews we lay rocks and not flowers on the gravestones.

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But many of the graves do not have names because the victims’ names are not known.

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Visiting Theresienstadt is something I will never forget. I’ve heard stories my entire life about my relatives who were sent here, but actually seeing it profoundly changed my understanding of it.

This photo was taken in 1940 of my great grandparents, Albert and Johanna Kleinstrass, who were sent to Theresienstadt before being deported to Auschwitz where they were killed:

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Our First Evening in Prague

We had an amazing visit to Berlin – we saw so much, learned a lot, and really explored. After such a successful time in the first city of our adventure, we were eager to go somewhere neither of us had been before – Prague! We got up early to have breakfast at the hotel and then packed and cleaned up the rest of our things. This was a hard moment for Katharina because she had to say goodbye to her boyfriend who had been traveling with us in Berlin.

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We took two trams to get to the main train station where we had been the day before. We made sure to arrive early because train/tram systems are never perfect and we experienced enough delays to know it’s worth sitting around where you need to be a little longer in order to make sure you catch your main train. We took the time to check out the large station, get snacks for the trip, pay to use the bathroom, and figure out where we needed to go.

We both got re-energized when our train pulled up and we were pumped to get on and find our seats. Because this was the first train we had reservations for, I think we were both a little unsure of how it worked and if we would find everything okay, but we managed just fine! The train was extremely crowded, hot, and stuffy so we were glad to have our reserved spots because many people were wandering around with nowhere to go. This train had little compartments with six seats per space.

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We shared with two girls traveling to Bratislava and a family that traded the two leftover seats throughout the five hour ride because they had not reserved seats in advance. The little boy of the family was adorable and played with us and we shared candy with him. We couldn’t understand each other because we didn’t speak the same language, but some things don’t need words (he was happy with me making goofy faces at him the whole trip).

So before telling you about our evening in Prague, let me give you some very brief background and historical information about the city. It is the capital and largest city of Czech Republic and the 15th largest city in the EU. In 2014, it was the fifth best destination for travel according to Tripadvisor. The name of the city in Czech is Praha, which originally comes from the word “prah,” meaning threshold – a rapid on the river, which is fitting as the city sits on the Vitava River. The city was once a capital of the Holy Roman Empire, important to the Habsburg Monarchy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the capital of the former Czechoslovakia. The historic centre of Prague has been included in the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites, which isn’t surprising considering the area was settled as early as the Paleolithic age and became part of the historical territory of Bohemia. The city was affected by the Thirty Years War, both World Wars, and the Cold War so the history is undeniable every place you step.

So my first impressions of Prague – cleaner than Berlin, beautiful architecture everywhere, and crowded. Considering it is the fifth most visited city in Europe following London, Paris, Istanbul, and Rome, the huge amounts of tourists wasn’t so surprising, but still overwhelming. We found our hotel after walking about fifteen minutes from the train station. Our hotel was really hip and more like a hostel with a different style from usual hotels because of its crazy lighting and decorations.

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We settled into the room and then got our map, explored our options, and got ready to see the city!

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We found some crazy things right away, like the Sex Machines Museum.. (you can’t make this kind of stuff up):

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Then we went to the old town square, a huge tourist section of the city, to see some of the older buildings.

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We found the astronomical clock, which was installed in 1410, making it the third-oldest astronomical clock in the world. It is the oldest one that still functions. It was truly awesome to watch it move on the hour.

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Unfortunately we didn’t get lucky with the weather for our first night in Prague. I think in hindsight this was for the best because we were both exhausted from the long train ride and the rain gave us an excuse to go to bed early. We were happy to have our raincoats though!

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The legend about building in the background, Tyn Church, is that it inspired Disney for the famous castle in Sleeping Beauty. This present church has existed since the 14th century, but some form of a church has been in that spot since the 11th century. It took decades to build this. The oldest pipe organ in Prague, from 1673, sits inside this church. The towers of the building are 80 meters high. All of that is really amazing to think about!

To get out of the rain, we grabbed some dinner quickly and of course sampled ice cream! We were happy to be seated under large umbrellas when it started down-pouring around us.

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After this delicious treat, we made our way back to the hotel because the next day was definitely a filled and intense one.

Our Visit to Berlin – Day 2

Okay so day 1 was a success in Berlin and we had big plans for our second day.

We woke up early and started the day off right with a great breakfast at our hotel. Yum!

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We had to take the tram over to the main train station because we wanted to reserve two seats for our train ride to Prague the next day. Throughout our backpacking trip, we went by Interrail so we could use one ticket and go anywhere Interrail goes (lots of options here from Norway to Spain to Switzerland to Turkey) within the time period we chose, but these tickets don’t necessarily give you seats on the specific trains you want. Standing with a heavy backpack and all your things is not ideal for four or more hours, so I always recommend reserving seats in advance on trains in Europe – and I am still extremely grateful we did!

The train station in Berlin is huge!

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And outside they have an exhibit for Jewish athletes, which I thought was really interesting to look at:

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After leaving the station we walked over to a very busy tourist area of the city where we could see many important buildings including the Parliament and the Brandenburg Gate:

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And even the famous hotel where Michael Jackson held out his baby from the window:

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We also got to take a look at a new memorial meant for the Sinti and Roma people who were murdered. I found the memorial to be incredibly peaceful and beautiful:

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After a busy morning of seeing so much within large crowds of people, it started to rain quite a bit. We decided it was the perfect time to make a stop somewhere to wait for the rain to end and enjoy a delicious treat:

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We all know that I’m totally crazy about ice cream and make an effort to try some every new place I go!

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The rain finally stopped right after we bought an umbrella (of course!) so we decided to make our way to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe – a museum and giant memorial dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust. When you arrive there, you have to go downstairs to get to the museum after being checked by security. The museum has several rooms, each with different kinds of themes about the events of the Holocaust.

First is general information about the events of the war and a timeline:

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Other sections include personal quotes and stories taken from victims’ diaries and letters. This was extremely moving and almost brought me to tears. You hear stories about the war and the Holocaust all the time, but when you read what people actually wrote – how desperate and pained they felt, what they were thinking, how scared they were for the future – that’s something that doesn’t leave you. They’re not just stories anymore, they’re real people’s lives and what actually happened to them.

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They also have a room dedicated to specific large families and what happened to each family member if it is known – most members were taken to concentration camps where they were murdered. In the different families it was rare to see members who had actually survived the war. This really affected me because I think about my own family and how many people were murdered and how different my lineage and family history would be if not for the Holocaust. The exhibit really lets people understand how deeply families were destroyed.

Then you enter a dark room with many benches to sit down on. This is a special place to reflect and think about everything just seen. Here, names of victims of the Holocaust are read all day with brief stories of what happened to them, if it is known. It would take 6 years, 7 months, and 27 days to go through each name, a fact that really captures the immensity of the horrors of the Holocaust.

They have computers with a database where people can search for any victims of the Holocaust. Here we were able to actually see our relatives’ names and all of their information and what happened to them. This made it so much more personal to me and helped me connect on an even deeper level to everything I had just seen.

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Something I really like about the museum is that it has free entrance for anyone. This means people don’t have to pay to learn about what took place, and therefore, more people will be able to attend, be educated, and can experience the touching exhibits.

Outside the museum is the famous memorial exhibit, designed by Peter Eisenman, which consists of huge stones of various sizes that act as a metaphor for the confusion and chaos of the Holocaust, creating what is similar to a maze.

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All around Berlin are signs and memorials related to the Holocaust, like in this small block of old architecture full of shops and restaurants where they mention the Jewish community that once existed there before the war:

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We then headed to a big tourist section of the city where the World Clock sits:

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There were all sorts of interesting street performers that captured the unique energy of the city:

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And there was this bubble thing. Now Berlin was the first big city we went to on our trip so we thought this bubble craziness was so cool, but as we continued on our journey we ended up seeing these bubble things in every single city – so it got less cool over time:

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We didn’t feel like we had seen enough yet that day (jokes) so we decided to make our way to the Berlin Wall Memorial Park. This was something I found very interesting because its simple design is well thought out and makes visitors really understand what it was like for people trapped in East Berlin and how desperate they were to escape.

Along the buildings are giant photos taken from different years over the decades when the city was divided:

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And posts are lined up where the wall once stood so people can imagine the height of the wall and the way it looked, yet now be able to actually see what was on the other side, something people couldn’t do for decades. I thought this idea of a memorial was healing in a way – that what once existed is not fully destroyed or forgotten, but there is change.

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There are also stone paths marking the old underground tunnels built through which people attempted to escape into West Berlin:

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It is complicated to know for sure how many people were killed trying to escape from East Berlin, but estimations are well into the hundreds.

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Portions of the original wall still remain and have interesting graffiti:P1010411

After seeing so much all around the city and skipping lunch in order to have ice cream (probably not the best idea in hind sight), we realized we should probably grab some dinner! We went to this great Singapore restaurant called Mirchi and had a huge delicious meal:

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Then we headed to a bar called Monkey Bar that is on the tenth floor of a building. We sat outside and couldn’t get over the amazing view:

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And learned that it is called Monkey Bar because it overlooks the Berlin Zoo and the monkey exhibit is right below:

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It was the perfect spot for some selfies!

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After such a crazy day of running around, learning so much, and seeing the city, we were all exhausted and headed back to the hotel. The tram/train ride back was long because we needed to take 4 different ones. But I think it was perfect after the long day because we all had a chance to talk and reflect on the incredible day we had just experienced. I think that’s one of the most important parts of traveling, to take a moment and realize what you’ve seen, what it all means, and how it affects you.

Our Visit to Berlin – Day 1

Now that you’ve read some about the history of the city, I’ll tell you all about what we did while we visited. We drove from Bredenborn, Germany (4 hour drive), which started off perfectly with the song 500 Miles coming on just as we got going, so we had a great sing along and got pumped up for seeing the city. These are the small moments you tend to remember forever when you think about a special trip.

A big difference between Europe and America is the bathroom situation. In America there are bathrooms everywhere and they’re free, large, and accessible – in Europe that is definitely not the case. Even at the rest stops on the way along the highway we had to pay a whole euro just to use the bathroom, and this was a trend that remained the entire trip when it came to public restrooms or those in restaurants and stores.

So my first impression of Berlin – huge city, that in a way reminded me of Chicago with all the trains/trams high up stretching across the whole area, but not at all alike with regards to the architecture. The city has a different energy and people dress in wild clothes and have a unique attitude.

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Our hotel was way better than we expected. We arrived at the L’Andels Hotel in the late afternoon and were blown away. It was huge and way fancier than we had anticipated and we were surprised because we had gotten the rooms so cheap when we reserved them a few months ago.

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After jumping around on the sofa and bed a little, we decided to start off the visit by going straight to see the famous Berlin Wall. There were tons of tourists and it was a little overwhelming after the last three weeks in small town Sweden. It was difficult to find our way around because the tram system was crazy confusing and complicated.

Here you can see what I’m talking about:

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Finding the Wall was easy because you just had to follow other tourists from the station – a good trick that often comes in handy when traveling: be aware of your surroundings, watch other people, listen to what they say and typically you’ll learn something new, find where you’re trying to go, or have a good laugh if nothing else. The Wall kind of snuck up on me because we were walking a while and then suddenly there it is – this extremely famous part of the world right in front of me. The paintings along the wall were inspiring and fascinating to look at.

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On my last post you can see even more photos of the artwork and paintings that stretch along a vast portion of the remaining wall.

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The weather wasn’t the greatest and started to drizzle while we looked around, so we decided to head to the tram and go to our next stop – the Topography of Terror Museum. This is a really moving outdoor/indoor exhibit that illustrates what happened in Berlin between 1933 and 1945. Outside is a long wall of photographs, displays, and articles that detail the historical events of that time period in the city in chronological order.

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There is a larger indoor museum right next door with bigger displays and even more detailed information. My last post includes many photos of what was displayed throughout the exhibit.

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It was truly moving to see this museum and the way its setup was something different and special. I’m always interested to see how places around the world represent such difficult topics because you can’t just plaster photos like that on a wall and be done with it. It takes skill to accurately capture the deeper meaning behind those photos and that kind of history.

We looked at both parts of the museum until closing and then waited under the ledge of a nearby building for the pouring rain to subside. I think it was good to have that moment to really reflect on all of what we had seen. I couldn’t help but wonder if my relatives had walked here once before their lives were destroyed and what they would think of the memorials and museums now. My grandmother and her family once lived in Berlin. My grandmother was sent to Sweden, which is how she survived the war. My great-grandmother was sent to Auschwitz where she was murdered. It’s hard to describe how I felt being in the city where they used to live before their lives were stolen from them, that this was the last place my great-grandmother called home.

Once the rain stopped we walked over to Checkpoint Charlie. I thought it was kind of amazing how casually it stands in the middle of this busy street full of traffic, shops, and people. The entire city is so full of history in ways deeper than most others.

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After seeing this we finally went out to dinner around 9:00 at L’Osteria, a really great Italian restaurant.

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We relaxed and enjoyed our meals before taking the long way back to the hotel by tram. The advantage of our hotel was how new and large it was, the disadvantage was how far it seemed to be from everything. After arriving back home we were all physically and mentally exhausted from the day’s journey and so we went straight to bed.

Berlin: The Wall, History, and Loss

Our first stop after Bredenborn was Berlin, the capital and largest city of Germany. This is a city that was first documented as existing in the 13th century and has had many changing political identities and been part of the Margraviate of Brandenburg, the Kingdom of Prussia, the German Empire, the Weimar Republic, and the Third Reich. It is a city mostly known for what occurred there in the 20th century.

After World War I in 1918, the republic was formed by Philipp Scheidemann and in 1920 the Greater Berlin Act caused the city to expand immensely. It is a city that has for centuries been known for art, cinema, architecture, technology, and industry.

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But Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party rose to power in 1933, which quickly changed this city forever. People in Germany began blaming the Jews and other minorities for many of the country’s problems that followed the loss of World War I.

Here you can see propaganda from a textbook of that time:

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Berlin’s Jewish community, which had been around 160,000 people, was destroyed by the Nazis – this was about one-third of all Jews in Germany at the time. According to Reignhard Heydrich in 1938, anyone who was considered to have shown “asocial elements” or “hostile attitudes to society,” whether they were criminal or not, were qualified to be sent to concentration camps. This being extremely subjective, anyone who the Nazis did not want in their city or country could be sent to the camps or murdered without much explanation – this included Jews, homosexuals, and the Sinti and Roma population.

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Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, occurred in 1938, in which Jewish-owned stores, buildings, and synagogues had windows smashed by the Nazis and many of these places were also burned to the ground.

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Over 1,000 Jewish shops and businesses were demolished in Berlin, 10 of the city’s 30 synagogues were destroyed and 13 damaged, dozens of people were murdered, and 13,000 Jews were arrested and taken to concentration camps. My grandfather and his family were very affected by this night in history.  Jews were then expected to pay for the damage themselves and were forced to wear yellow Stars of David on their clothes at all times to identify themselves as Jewish. This was a time when people became desperate for survival and resorted to hiding, sacrifice, and betrayal.

This map illustrates more than 500 of thousands of sites where Nazi persecution and extermination took place – camps, ghettos, mass shooting sites, and starting points of deportation:

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It is estimated that more than 6 million jews were murdered during the Holocaust – 1 million of them being children. My great and great-great grandparents were some of the victims of the Holocaust when they were murdered in concentration camps.

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In 1943-1945, air raids and the Battle of Berlin caused major parts of the city to be destroyed and thousands of civilians were killed. The war ended in 1945 and large numbers of refugees from Eastern provinces began arriving. Germany was divided into four sectors by the victorious powers. The Western Allies, which included the United States, United Kingdom, and France, took over Western Berlin and the Soviet sector formed East Berlin.

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These divisions within the country and the city increased tensions during the Cold War. East German territory surrounded West Berlin and East Germany decided the Eastern part would be its capital, a section that included the most historic portion of the city. The Berlin Wall was built between East and West Berlin in 1961 practically overnight, leading to a tank standoff at famous Checkpoint Charlie.

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John F. Kennedy gave a speech in 1963 in which he proclaimed US support with the Western section of the city. During this time, Easterners were prohibited to travel into West Berlin or West Germany. People were desperate to escape East Berlin and many lost their lives in the process.

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It was not until 1971, that a Four-Power agreement guaranteed access to and from West Berlin by car or train through East Germany.

The wall was not taken down until November 9, 1989 as the Cold War ended. In 1990, 118 artists from 21 countries painted a portion of the remaining wall, becoming a gallery expressing the joy widely felt over the falling of the Berlin Wall.

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Berlin is one of those cities in which it feels every corner you turn has this immense heavy history, a lot of which still remains visible. The events of the twentieth century will always affect the city.

Visiting Bredenborn, Germany

Bredenborn is this really small town in Germany about an hour and a half from Hanover. This is where my cousin Katharina lives with her family.

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It’s surrounded by tons of farm land and mountains with stunning landscapes that remind me of what people build surrounding model trains:

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I actually had relatives living here in the 1800s and before World War II so I feel really connected to my family history when I visit this part of Germany. I’ve been here a few times before including last summer when a Holocaust memorial was put up honoring members of our family who once lived here. They published a big article in the newspaper about the event, making it feel even more special. I think it’s worth noting how parts of Europe and specifically Germany are making efforts to acknowledge the overwhelming history and what happened before, during, and after the Holocaust. It took this town close to seven decades to make a memorial for those lost who once called this place home, but at least they did it.

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Like many German villages, this town celebrates something called Shutzenfest every year. I had to ask a few questions about this to have an idea of what it was because we don’t have something like this in America. From what I learned, it’s a big weekend-long celebration that people from all around the local towns come to where a girl is made the queen and honored with parties, drinking, food, and old traditions. It was very cool to be there for some of it and get a better idea of what it is all about.

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There was a carnival, a dance party similar to prom, huge breakfasts, and parades!

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The history in this town is pretty incredible. They have buildings that are hundreds of years old like this church that was built 800 years ago. As an American, that kind of age behind something manmade is remarkable because we don’t have many old buildings in the States – (200 year old buildings practically seem ancient).

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This is Grevenburg, an aristocratic home that is about 600 year old. This aristocratic family basically owned the town and were once extremely wealthy. They still have seats reserved in church and own a lot of property throughout the town. The family crest remains at the entrance of the home even now.

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I had such a wonderful visit seeing the town and my family there.

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But as great as it was, I was really excited to get going on our next adventure and head to Berlin!