As Ken Ulric walked through the gates of the Dachau concentration camp surrounded by two generations of his family, the Long Island resident was near tears and hugged his grandson a little closer.
The visit to a place where Nazis mercilessly starved, tortured, and incinerated hundreds of thousands of people, including countless Jews, was a pilgrimage of sorts for Ulric and his extended family. It was a proof of life, a way to say, 'We're still here; you didn't destroy us after all.
"One of my strongest recollections as a boy is of my mother and grandfather crying when photos or films of the camps were shown on television," said Ulric, a retired teacher. "It was made very clear to me that our family lost many members during the Holocaust."
Visiting Dachau was one of the final stops on a weeklong exploration of Jewish heritage with Uniworld Cruises. Earlier this year the boutique river cruise company launched an industry first "Jewish Heritage" tour along the Rhine and Main rivers in Germany, a fascinating 10-day experience that offers an in-depth look at the country's past and the present.
The journey features discussions with members of Germany's Jewish community about life in the country today. Tours are led by Jewish academic, and the trip includes visits to synagogues, Jewish cemeteries, museums, historic ghettos and more.
It's an itinerary, that in many ways, is both long overdue and potentially right on time, given the current resurgence of the neo-Nazi movement in America.
"No one has offered a cruise with a Jewish itinerary," says Uniworld Cruise Manager Anthony Bank. "There is a real need for people to do these programs and a real desire for these programs. Developing an understanding of one's past is more important for a lot of travelers than pleasure seeking. It's about finding oneself as a person."
Among the first stops on the new Uniworld cruise is Frankfurt, a city whose Jewish community dates back to at least the 12th century and that was home to the first Jewish ghetto in Europe, the Judengasse. A walled and gated street at the edge of the city where Jewish residents were forced to live, the Judengassse eventually developed into one of the most important centers of Jewish life on the continent.
But as with much of Germany, Frankfurt's Jewish history is punctuated by periods of violence, expulsion, and rebirth, culminating during the Nazi regime with ten deportations of Jewish citizens, the last in 1945, our tour guide told us.
Today, visitors can walk the start of the path Jewish residents were made to walk by the Nazis as they were marched out of the city. The route is now covered in a sea of uneven, loose stones - a deliberate design decision aimed at making the path uncomfortable, a small but poignant reminder of the discomfort felt by those who were forced along this route filled with fear.
The walkway passes alongside the Jewish Holocaust Remembrance Wall, which is covered with 12,000 tiny, square blocks bearing the names of Jews deported and murdered by the Nazis. Those who look carefully can find blocks on the wall for Anne Frank, and members of her family, who were originally from Frankfurt.
The Museum Judengasse, built to exhibit the foundations of Jewish homes and ritual baths from the original Judengasse constructed in the Middle Ages, is also located here. The homes were discovered in 1987 as construction began on a public utilities administration building, and the exhibit that remains presents a microcosm of life for poor ghetto residents, including showcasing numerous household and religious items that were unearthed.
Viewed together, these historic sites offer a fascinating overview of Frankfurt's Jewish history.
Our visit was even more enlightening thanks to a meeting Uniworld arranged with Aaron Serota, a college student born and raised in Frankfurt. Sitting together in a small conference room at the museum, Serota told us that Jews have a stable, but sometimes uneasy existence in Germany today.
Anti-Semitism is something every Jew in the country has to deal with at some point, Serota said. But he added that Jewish life is getting better each day and year and that it's possible to live peacefully in Germany in 2017.
"Many people say, 'Jews living in Germany? How is it possible?'" says Serota. "We are the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. It's a fact. My girlfriend was raised by parents who were children of Holocaust survivors. It's part of her identity. It's part of my identity. It has been a great issue...But with the Holocaust, a whole generation died and a tradition died. That's why it's important for young people like myself to be here and to bring it back. It's important that museums like this are here. And it's important to remember."
The Nuremberg trials seemed larger than life to me as a child in the United States, when we learned in school about the Nazis and their eventual end.
A gathering of nations designed to mete out justice in the face of unspeakable evil and the atrocities of the Holocaust, these military tribunals held by the Allied forces after World War II were monumental in their significance, laying out humanity's case against the Third Reich and establishing the foundation for the way the world deals with hate crimes.
Courtroom 600, where the trials occurred, is in many ways the birthplace of international criminal law, setting precedent for later trials tied to war crimes in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.
So as we walked into the Nuremberg Palace of Justice where this dramatic event took place and peered into the famous courtroom, the space seemed much smaller and less impressive than I had imagined since childhood.
Yet our guide had us riveted, as did the exhibits in the rooms surrounding the courtroom, which showcase photographs, videos and more from the trial that took place between 1945 and 1946.
In a courtroom built for just 100 people judges from the Allied powers presided over the cases of 22 Nazi criminals. Extensive structural modifications were made in order to accommodate the historic trials, including windows being built into the courtroom wall to allow for taking photographs of the proceedings and for on-site radio reports. In addition, interpreter stations, separated by glass panes, were created in a corner of the courtroom.
The biggest modification was the removal of a back wall, to expand the visitors' space to include a 235-seat press box. In addition, a balcony gallery was created to allow for another 128 observers.
Here, as the world watched, the Nazi's Final Solution to the Jewish Question, the extermination of the Jewish people, was detailed in graphic testimony and film. In the end, 12 defendants were sentenced to death and far more received life in prison.
Still, justice seems to have faltered somewhat over the years. As our guide reminded us, many of the Nazi criminals who had been sentenced to life in prison during the trials were eventually set free in their old age.
The city of Nuremberg included two additional important stops. We visited The Documentation Center Nazi Party Rallying Grounds, a museum housed in the giant, unfinished remains of the Congress Hall, a structure built by the Nazi party in the city's southern district and a testament to the megalomania of the National Socialist regime. Congress Hall, designed to hold 50,000, was one of many structures the Nazis were building as monumental backdrops for their party gatherings. It's construction, however, was halted amid the war and never completed. Today it houses the permanent exhibit "Fascination and Terror," a look at the causes, context, and consequences of the National Socialist regime of terror. It's a fascinatingly detailed exhibit that traces the propaganda used by the Nazi party to lay the groundwork for its rise to power and corruption of public sentiment.
Equally riveting, our visit in Nuremberg included walking the route where thousands upon thousands of Nazi soldiers once marched, past the very platform where Hitler famously stood in countless films and propaganda images, as the soldiers paraded by in lockstep and saluted him.
The platform remains intact today, somehow not destroyed during the war. It is massive, looming like a concrete fortress over the street below, a testament to the ego and ambitions of the man who built it. Seeing this place where Hitler so famously positioned himself above his troops in countless news reels and films from World War II, brought me right back to my childhood. It was almost eerily uncomfortable to be in this place that was once the center of so much evil.
Today, the platform sits quietly alone on a road blocked off by fences. The space is now used by recreational bikers who on a recent sunny, summer day glided by happily and peacefully, as if oblivious to the history of this place and what occurred here. Or perhaps the podium is left intact as a deliberate reminder of what took place in this country, so that it is never forgotten.
Dachau Concentration Camp
Dachau opened on March 22, 1933. On April 10 of that year, the SS took over guarding the prisoners from Bavarian police and two days later the first deaths took place. Four prisoners accused of trying to escape were led out of the gates and shot.
This is just the beginning of Dachau's story of horror. As the years passed the numbers and the atrocities intensified. In total, Dachau was open 12 years, from 1933 until 1945. During that time 210,000 prisoners were held at the camp including political prisoners, gypsies, Jehova's Witnesses, Jews and homosexuals.
About 40,000 Dachau prisoners died violently at the hands of the SS, as well as from starvation, lack of medical care and sheer exhaustion. In the end, about 32,000 were liberated. The remainder are unaccounted for or went missing in the Nazi system.
Fed just one meal per day, prisoners were forced to work 14 to 16 hour straight, used as slave labor at German companies such as BMW, Siemens, and more. These are just some of the statistics that confront visitors at Dachau.
Though none of the original barracks stand today, there are recreations of what the prisoner's quarters were like. In rooms with just 140 beds, 500 prisoners would be forced to sleep, sometimes two or three to a bed. The mattresses were made of straw.
One of the most moving parts of any visit is easily the crematorium, a small building just beyond the camp's fences where bodies were incinerated and which contained the gas chambers. The prisoners at the Nazi concentration camps were forced to do the dirty work, burning the bodies. Every three months, those working in the crematorium were shot and replaced with new prisoners.
There were ten incinerators in one building at Dachau, and still, it was not enough to keep up with all the bodies, our guide informed us. The ashes of the bodies were simply dumped on the grounds surrounding the building so that visitors today are walking over a mass grave as they enter the building.
"I can't crystallize in my mind how this happened," said Uniworld passenger Steve Ham, who as a member of the LGBT community was very cognizant that he and his partner would have been targets of the Nazis. "How did this great country implode? How did this all happen? I've spent a lot of time trying to wrap my brain around it.This trip, I learned so much more and I still don't understand how this happened."
Several years ago, Dachau survivors gathered money and erected a sculpture in what was Dachau's central roll-call area. The sculpture is meant to depict the bodies of prisoners on the electric fences surrounding the camp. When Dachau was in operation, those who wanted to commit suicide did so by jumping against the electric fences surrounding the camp, as that was seen as a preferable alternative to continued life at the camp. Nazi guards would leave the bodies on the fences for two to three months.
After the Ulric family walked Dachau's grounds and heard such details, the words of the famous comedian and actor Mel Brooks came to mind.
"Mel Brooks says the best way to get back at Hitler and the Nazis is to laugh at them," he said. "That may be true, but certainly, another way is our way - three post-war generations of our family standing at Dachau makes it very clear: we are here, and they aren't. Talk about life affirming."
In the days after visiting the camp, the Ulric family continued talking about the visit amongst themselves. And once they returned to the United States and to their respective homes, each family member knew exactly how the experience had impacted them and what they would do going forward.
They would individually work to proclaim: never again. For anyone. Anywhere. Ever.
Starting in 2018, Uniworld's Jewish Heritage tour will be expanded to include France, Switzerland and the Netherlands, in addition to Germany.