Throughout history, two of the main European rivers, the Rhine and Danube were separate and navigation from one to the other was impossible. In 793, Charlemagne had a channel excavated between the two rivers, but it soon collapsed. A thousand years later, Ludwig I also constructed a narrow canal, which was destroyed during the Second World War. The latest canal, 171 km. long, was completed in 1992. It crosses the European watershed and has 16 locks that lift or lower ships.
By linking the Rhine and Danube rivers, this canal has created a 3,540-km waterway that runs through 15 countries, initially conceived as a commercial project for the transport of goods. Over the past two decades, however, there has been an increase in cruise ships traversing the Rhine-Danube system. In 1993, there were nine; today more than a million people travel annually on this route.
AmaWaterways was founded in 2002 by Rudi Schreiner, who early on realized the potential of tourist cruising. This company provides all-encompassing river cruise vacations on breathtaking waterways of Europe as well as rivers in Africa, Cambodia and Myanmar. Their fleet boasts 21 custom-designed ships. The company recently received an overall 4-Star+ rating in the Berlitz: River Cruising in Europe travel guide.
There are advantages to a river cruise, especially for the older passengers: no need to unpack, repack and change hotels. All meals are served on board. Tourist destinations come to you; you don’t have to go to them.
The staff to guest ratio was 3:1, ensuring passengers exceptional service. The cruise manager coordinates all activities. Our manager, Balázs Kiss, was exceptional and the success of our cruise was in large measure due to his efficiency.
There are complimentary excursions to all ports of call with local English-speaking guides. Tours are tailored for gentle, regular and active walkers. For those already acquainted with a city, AmaWaterways has developed specialty tours highlighting rarely visited landmarks. Each ship carries bicycles, enabling passengers to explore on their own or join a guided tour. For certain cruises, AmaWaterways offers specialty land trips, one of which is a Jewish Heritage tour. Coming from Israel, we were intrigued to visit Jewish sites.
Our cruise commenced in Budapest and ended 14 days later in Amsterdam. We traveled 2,000 km. and negotiated 68 locks. Situated on the banks of these rivers are some of Europe’s major cities, including Budapest, Bratislava, Vienna, Koblenz, Cologne and Amsterdam, as well as smaller gems including Regensburg, Bamberg and Wertheim.
The Danube flows through Budapest, separating Buda from Pest. Here we visited the Moorish-style Dohany synagogue, built in 1854, decorated with murals, stained glass windows, chandeliers and carved wooden seating. This is the largest synagogue in Europe. In 1944 the synagogue garden was used as a cemetery where thousands of victims were buried.
In the courtyard is the Holocaust Memorial Tree by sculptor Imre Varga, dedicated to the 600,000 Hungarian Jews who perished in the Holocaust. Cast in steel, its leaves are engraved with the names of the victims.
The most poignant Jewish memorial is the tragic Shoe Exhibit situated on the bank of the Danube, just a stone’s throw from Hungary’s impressive Gothic parliament building. Gyula Pauer and Can Togay’s installation cast in bronze comprises 60 pairs of empty shoes. In 1944-45, Hungary’s fascist Arrow Cross removed footwear from men, women and children, lined up the hapless victims on the bank of the Danube and shot them. Their bodies disappeared in the rapidly flowing waters.
Our ship, the AmaPrima, set sail in the evening and we were treated to the spectacular Budapest skyline with its extraordinary panoramic lit-up monuments. We cruised in a westerly direction through Slovakia and docked in its capital city, Bratislava. This lovely city has a population of half a million. In the first half of the 19th century, Bratislava became an important center of Jewish learning and Rabbi Moshe Schreiber, the Chatan Sofer became chief rabbi. The Jewish cemetery in which the Chatam Sofer was buried was destroyed in 1943. In 2000 the site was redeveloped in a striking design by Martin Kvasnica and has become a site of pilgrimage.
We spent a day touring Vienna, the Hapsburg capital and then cruised through the incredible scenery of Austria’s Wachau Valley with its vineyards visiting Durnstein, a picturesque town whose ruined castle once imprisoned the Crusader, Richard the Lionheart. The more adventurous passengers participated in a bike ride along the picturesque Wachau Valley. The seniors were bused to the 1,000-year-old baroquestyle Benedictine monastery at Melk with its fantastic library.
After a day of sightseeing, it is a welcome feeling to return to our new home, the AmaPrima, to freshen up in our stateroom equipped with a sophisticated entertainment system with recently released movies, TV programs and news. The flat screen monitor also converted into a computer screen with free WiFi.
The next day the ship docked in Linz. The more enterprising took the bus tour to Salzburg. The less motivated remained on board. We spent time in the exercise fitness room. My wife also availed herself of the pampering massage services and hair salon. Later, we relaxed on the expansive sun deck with heated swimming pool.
Dining was of a very high standard. Breakfast and lunch were buffet with an option of a la carte. Dinner was excellent, with many choices. Wines and beverages were complimentary and plentiful. The service was superb; nothing was too much for the competent staff. The chefs were very gracious and prepared food for us to comply with our religious requirements.
The large, comfortably-furnished lounge, with a full-service bar, served as a gathering place for lectures and entertainment. An onboard pianist played live music and the dance floor made the lounge a popular spot for guests. Each night there was an entertainment program which included local music groups and singers. We also got to know our many fascinating well-traveled fellow tourists and forged long-lasting friendships.
The next day we reached Passau, situated at the confluence of the Danube, Inn and Ilz Rivers, and then continued to the attractive medieval town of Regensburg, the oldest city on the Danube, established more than 2,000 years ago. Construction of the gothic Regensburg Cathedral started during the 13th century. One of the sculptures of the cathedral’s facade depicts the antisemitic, Judensau (Jew’s sow), which shows images of Jews suckling the teat of a large sow.
Regensburg’s Jewish quarter was established in 1020. When Emperor Maximilian died in 1519, Jews were expelled and the synagogue was razed. Thousands of gravestones were removed from the cemetery and used for building new structures. When construction work of the main central square in Regensburg, the Neupfarrplatz, began in the 1990s, the remains of the 1519 destroyed synagogue were found. Today, this bustling area is surrounded by cafes, restaurants and shops.
The cruise ship then entered the canal and docked near the historic city of Nuremberg. I had mixed feelings about visiting this city, which has such a checkered unsavory past, although in the Middle Ages, this was one of the main centers of German Enlightenment and home of the artist Albrecht Dürer.
In 1498, the emperor Maximilian I expelled Jews from Nuremberg. They returned slowly and by 1933, there were 9,000 in the city. Its more sinister history began when Nuremberg became the center of the Nazi Party. It was here in 1935 that the notorious anti-Semitic race laws depriving German Jews of their rights of citizenship were promulgated. In Nuremberg, Hitler staged his parades on the Nazi rally grounds with his tens of thousands of avid supporters.
The trouble for the Jews began in earnest when Julius Streicher, editor of the antisemitic paper Der Stuermer, became regional party leader. Those Jews who did not have the foresight to leave Germany immediately were persecuted, imprisoned and sent to concentration camps. Only 65 Jews returned after the war.
Our tour included a visit to World War II sites. All buildings, including the Zepperlin Field erected for Nazi party rallies, have been largely destroyed, leaving only the unfinished Party Congress hall. Our final visit was to Courtroom 600 in the Palace of Justice, where a handful of senior Nazi officials were tried in 1946 and 10, including Streicher, were hanged.
Our ship exited the canal at Bamberg and reentered the main river. Bamberg is a lovely medieval city that was largely spared the destruction of the World War II. It still retains its picturesque old town hall, built on an island in the Regnitz River. The cathedral in Bamberg features on the right side of the main church portal, the figure of Synagoga, blindfolded and drooping, carrying a broken lance with the Tablets of the Law slipping from her hand. The other side depicts the confident figure of Ecclesia personifying the Church.
Wertheim was another medieval village frozen in time. The main synagogue, in the present day Neuplatz, was destroyed on Kristalnacht. In Wertheim, there is a well-preserved Jewish cemetery dating from 1406, one of the oldest in Germany.
We took a short bus trip to Rothenburg. A prosperous city in medieval times, its importance decreased after it was cut off from the new trading routes. Currently there are no Jews in Rothenburg, but there is a Judengasse dating from 1371 and the Jewish Dance House (Judentanzhaus), originally built in 1613. Embedded in the wall surrounding the small garden are replicas of Jewish tombstones dating to the 13th century. The original gravestones are displayed in the town museum.
We rejoined the ship and set out on the most spectacular part of the journey, sailing past the magnificent Rhine castles, eventually docking in Koblenz, which straddles the Rhine and Mosel Rivers. Then onto Cologne, where we visited the famous cathedral and finally docked in Amsterdam, where our tour ended.
What were our lasting impressions? We had a luxury cruise through the heartland of European civilization. In some of the larger cities, Jews have returned (most come from the former Soviet Union). These communities are flourishing, but for the most part Europe remains bereft of Jews. Yes, there are cemeteries, memorials, a few synagogues but no Jews.
What one does see are the stolpersteine (stumbling blocks), metallic cobblestones designed by Gunter Demnig. Each cobblestone is inscribed with an individual’s name, year of birth, and date of deportation and death. The Stolpersteine are laid in the pavement in front of the last residence of the victim and are there for everyone to stumble upon. These ghosts are a potent reminder of a past that is now lost forever. Today, the crescent moon has replaced the Star of David.
The writer was a guest of AmaWaterways. He would like to thank Samantha Jacobs, founder and president, and Matt Ritter, account supervisor, both of Hemsworth Communications for all their help.