Dresden: Dazzling splendor and historical burden

Impressive natural and architectural beauty unable to escape the shadow of disturbing wartime trauma.

December 18, 2016 01:21
Elbe River

A VIEW OF the Elbe River, Dresden, where paddle steam boats ply the river. (photo credit: BEN G. FRANK)

Destinations often get lumped together as part of a specific itinerary. The “Honeymoon Tour” of Venice, Florence and Rome; the “Golden Triangle Tour” of Vienna, Prague and Budapest are examples.

I took a tour now heralded by the travel industry: Berlin, Dresden and Prague. (It is only a five-hour train ride from Berlin to Prague).

Linked to Berlin and Prague, and smack right in the middle, lies Dresden, the capital of Saxony – a gem on the Elbe River, 160 kilometers southeast of Berlin and 32 kilometers from the Czech Republic border.

On my visit, I learned that Dresden likes to be called the “Florence of the Elbe,” and rightly so. Its array of art is dazzling: 35 museums, including the Old and New Masters Art Galleries, as well as a unique Dresden Hygiene Museum. It also boasts 34 theaters and stages, including the Saxon State Opera, a Saxon State Orchestra, a Dresden Philharmonic and a Dresden Symphony.

If you are into music and art, this city should be on your itinerary.

The 18th century Zwinger, built as a palace forecourt, was restored after the war as a museum and gallery, and houses one of the world’s finest collections of porcelain as well as a superb collection of pewter. The Semper Gallery, also a part of the Zwinger, contains some of the world’s finest paintings – chief among them the large numbers of works by Italian, Flemish and Dutch painters. The Old Masters Art Gallery in the Semper Building of the Zwinger houses around 3,000 works by European painters from the 14th to the 18th century, and the best of and largest collection of Italian paintings north of the Alps. The porcelain collection in the Zwinger is the largest in the world.

I learned that the city is famous for porcelain often called “Dresden china.” Actually, it is Meissen porcelain, produced in nearby Meissen where its factory became the first manufacturer to turn out true porcelain in Europe. German settlers from Meissen founded Dresden in the early 1200s and 200 years later, the city became the capital of Saxony. In 1871, Saxony was joined to the German empire.

Renowned over centuries for its architectural beauty and “douceur de vivre,” Dresden’s history is tied to the Elbe, a major river of Central Europe. Nearly 1,200 kilometers long, the river rises in the Czech Republic and cuts through Dresden as it flows through east Germany, past Hamburg, and into the North Sea. Symbolically, at the end of World War II, on April 25, 1945, American and Russian troops met at the river town of Torgau, 80 kilometers from Dresden.

World War II lies deep in the psyche of anyone who enters here. Reminders are everywhere. About 60 years ago, near the end of the war, both the US Army and the Red Army raced for Berlin. At 10 p.m., February 13, 1945, 1,100 American and British heavy bombers dropped more than 4,500 tons of high explosive bombs and incendiary devices on Dresden, leaving the city in flaming ruins and claiming the lives of between 25,000 and 40,000 persons.

Fredrick Taylor demonstrates in his well-documented book, Dresden: Tuesday, 13 February, 1945 that Dresden was a city of considerable military importance as a transportation hub and a major producer of armaments and military provisions. Still, he writes: “The name of Dresden continues to echo uneasily in our collective memory and controversy about the city’s destruction has not ceased to rage.”

At the same time, the noted professor of modern Jewish and Holocaust studies, Deborah Lipstadt, has debunked the mythology of those who seek to draw an “immoral equivalence,” like one neo-Nazi leader who compared the “Allies’ Holocaust of bombs” to “Nazi crimes.”

Nazi crimes resulted in the Holocaust, the systematic death of six million Jews. On Kristallnacht in 1938, the Dresden synagogue, which served 6,000 Jews, was leveled. It had been consecrated on May 8, 1840.

Gottfried Semper, the city’s most famous architect, who drew up the plans for the famous Semper Opera House, designed that synagogue. In the 1840s, that house of worship was the largest Jewish congregation in Germany.

Today, a new synagogue and JCC stand at the exact spot as its predecessor. Modern, impressive, with several rows of memorial trees in its courtyard, with a kosher kitchen, the synagogue and community center serve about 600 Jews, most of them from the former Soviet Union. Located at Hasenberg 1, the new building was not constructed as an exact replica of the former house of worship. That would give the impression that the healing would have been achieved by reconstruction and the scars of the Holocaust no longer existed. The back of one outside wall slants unevenly downward to show imperfection and rupture, as some Jewish centers in Germany have large and very visible cracks in their walls.

The Star of David from the original synagogue was saved and hidden by a local firefighter. It is now installed above the entrance of the new synagogue.

A Jewish community existed here in the early 14th century. Its members were massacred in the Black Death persecutions in 1349. Jews are not mentioned in Dresden again until 1375. A synagogue and cemetery were opened in the middle of the 18th century and by the end of that century there were about 1,000 Jews.

The community numbered approximately 2,300 in 1886; 4,300 in 1913 and more than 6,000 in 1925. After the Holocaust, few returned. While a new synagogue was opened in 1950, by the 1960s when the Communists were in power in East Germany, only about 100 Jews remained.

The Old Jewish Cemetery on Pulsnitzer Street is the oldest in Saxony, with graves dating back to 1750.

Hatikva, a group of Jews and non-Jews, which brings students from throughout the area to the synagogue to study and learn about Judaism, is sponsoring a project to interpret the Hebrew inscriptions and to preserve the decaying stones. The cemetery once had 1263 graves; about 800 now exist. “Jewish cemeteries are places of eternity,” said the organization.

Physically, the Saxony capital has climbed out of its stagnant past as part of the Communist satellite, including the days when East German Communists turned Dresden into a symbol of American imperialism because of the bombing. Dresden looms large in the fight to beat down the rabble of neo-Nazis who hide behind rightist political parties.

In spring and summer, the view from the main café-laden terrace is calming. I observed that paddle steamers ply the Elbe and a trip on the river is highlight of any visit.

The world-famous Frauenkirche church was restored and re-opened a decade ago.

A recommended guide for city touring and Jewish point of interest is Susanne Reichelt, info@tourguide- dresden.de. Website, www tourguide-dresden.de. For tours of the synagogue itself, Reichelt noted that she puts travelers in contact with the association known as Hatikva (www.hatikva.de). The Chabad website is www.Chabad-Sachsen.de Ready to receive tourists are castles and hills across the river. An almost hushed city behind gives the tourist an appreciation of a city which started out as a fishing village in 1206 and grew into a celebrated architectural and artistic city. That’s why travelers are flocking to Dresden, a gem on the Elbe River.

The writer, a travel writer and lecturer, is the author of the just-published Klara’s Journey, A Novel, (Marion Street Press); The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond, (Globe Pequot Press); A Travel Guide to Jewish Europe, 3rd edition; A Travel Guide to Jewish Russia and Ukraine, and A Travel Guide to Jewish Caribbean and South America, (all Pelican Publishing Company). Follow him on twitter @bengfrank.

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