River Cruise II: Nuremberg and the AmaDolce

After three days in Prague we took a bus to our ship in Nuremberg, Germany, settled in, had a great dinner, and the next morning took an amazing tour of the city with our guide Art, an American who has been living here for 23 years. After September visits to Normandy and the concentration camp at Mauthausen, our day in Nuremberg was a fitting conclusion to my World War II trilogy.

In terms of the war, Nuremberg is well known for two reasons. It was the site of the huge Nazi rallies and some of Hitler’s most megalomaniacal projects, and it was also the venue for the historic war crimes trials after the end of the war.

Because of its strategic importance Nuremberg ended up being 90% destroyed by allied bombs. Its central location and its rail system made it ideal for transferring military equipment and personnel to the countries Germany was attempting to occupy. And there were factories there that produced most of the engines being used in the war effort; submarine engines, tank engines, even motorcycle engines, were all made in Nuremberg, so it became a primary target for the allies.

The location and the rail system were also the reason Hitler chose Nuremberg as a rallying point for Nazi party activities; it was easier for 500,000 people to gather there. Additionally, the police chief was an enthusiastic Nazi who could guarantee security. Finally, Nuremberg was once the seat of power for the Holy Roman Empire, and the symbolism was not lost on Adolph.

We drove into and around the former Congress Hall, which was modeled after the Colosseum in Rome but would have been twice as big if it had been completed. It was built next to a lake (which was drained on this day) and the infirmity of the earth necessitated the sinking of massive pilings, but Hitler thought it would look twice as big when reflected in the water. It had huge doors that were designed to make any individual walking through them feel weak and insignificant; only when he is part of the masses should a man feel strong.

Here’s the kicker: Congress Hall was being built to host just one rally each year, on just one day, featuring just one speaker. Now it’s used for storing appliances.

Just across the lake from Congress Hall is Zeppelin Field, where the big rallies took place. The grassy hillsides are overgrown and the austere presentation stadium has been partially dismantled, but enough of it remains to leave an uncomfortable impression. The Versailles Treaty at the end of WWI restricted Germany to only 100,000 soldiers, so they recruited “farmers” and trained them to be soldiers but put shovels in their hands that could easily be exchanged for rifles. And they came by train from all over Germany and they filled this field.

I climbed up the stairs to the presentation stand, paused a moment, and walked out onto the platform where Hitler used to speak. We’ve all seen pictures and video of those rallies, more than 300 huge swastika flags waving in the wind, the little man saluting 250,000 of his lemmings. All kinds of thoughts go through your mind standing there. How does one evil man get so many disenfranchised young men to follow him? How could this have happened, and are we really sure it can never happen again?

From Zeppelin Field we went into town. Here are a few quick facts about Nuremberg: it’s the site of Germany’s first train station (1835); there is a seven-kilometer medieval wall around the old town still stands, mostly intact despite the bombing; and Henry Kissinger was born and raised there, and still returns on occasion to watch his favorite soccer team.

We went to the courthouse where The Trial of the Major War Criminals before the International Military Tribunal took place. Prior to the end of the war Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill met three times to discuss what to do after the war ended. Stalin wanted to pick 100,000 German soldiers and execute them publically. FDR and Churchill wanted a fair and very visible trial. Stalin wanted it in Berlin, which was the capital of Germany and of course in the Soviet zone, but there were no facilities big enough. Courtroom 600 is the largest of the 80 courtrooms in Nuremberg’s Palace of Justice, and it was suitable. Also, there is a prison just behind the courthouse (still functioning) and the defendants could be housed there and transported safely through tunnels, reducing the possibility of an attempt at liberation or assassination.

There were 24 original defendants who were charged with conspiracy against peace, war of aggression, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. The group did not include Adolph Hitler, Joseph Goebbels or Heinrich Himmler, as the gutless bastards had all committed suicide before they could be indicted. The United States, France, England and Russia all supplied judges, and the prosecution was overseen by U.S. Supreme Court judge Robert Jackson, who was given a leave of absence. His opening and closing statements are considered to be among the great speeches of the 20th century.

The trial lasted one year between 1945 and 1946 and attracted worldwide attention; Walter Cronkite was among the journalists covering it, and Ernest Hemmingway attended as well. Of the 24 original defendants, 12 received death sentences and were executed in the prison grounds, eight received life sentences, two were acquitted and Hermann Goring killed himself the night before his execution with a cyanide pill rumored to have been supplied by a guard in return for a gold watch.

Martin Bormann was tried in absentia and his remains were found in Berlin in 1972. Adolph Eichmann was found hiding in South America in the early 60s, tried and executed. I remember being in the school lunchroom that day and everyone standing and cheering as the clock struck the appointed hour. I’m not sure any of us really understood the specifics, we just knew it meant the end of another Nazi bad guy.

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After Nuremberg we started cruising on the AmaWaterways’ ship AmaDolce. I’ve never been one for cruises, had no idea what to expect and was prepared for anything, but it turned out to be an exceptional experience in every respect.

The three-year old AmaDolce was extremely comfortable. It certainly helped that the ship’s capacity is 148 passengers and we had just 64, November not being the optimal cruise season (in fact this was the AmaDolce’s last cruise of the year) and a number of cancelations coming courtesy of Hurricane Sandy. It never felt crowded and was a much more intimate environment that it might have been otherwise.

The ship is 360 feet long and only 11.5 meters wide, as some of the 25 locks between Nuremberg and Budapest are just 12 meters wide. When we were in one of those you could open the sliding glass door in your stateroom and touch the wall of the lock.

The crew of 40 was exceptional. Most were eastern European, and they were unfailingly cheerful and helpful despite the fact that it was the end of a very long season and they were all anxious to get home. The Cruise Director that held all of this together was Kriss Stallabrass, a Canadian now living in Holland. Kriss was somehow equal parts tour guide, historian, Elvis impersonator, camera mechanic, psychiatrist, raconteur, excursion coordinator and a dozen other things. She may not be a doctor but she knows one in every port. Her job, she said, was to “be a mind reader and try to anticipate what will make everyone happy. You can never forget that for every person on board, this is the trip of a lifetime.”

Ama was started by an Austrian named Rudi Schreiner ten years ago. “He wanted to start a company that would feature  everything he would want in a cruise,” Kriss told me. “Different wines every night, free Wi-Fi throughout the ship, free movies in the rooms, the best food. So that is what we strive for.”

Our good buddy Szabolcs (pronounced Saboch) Smida, from Salgotrjan, Hungary, was the bartender. Sabo is 25 and has already been in 68 different countries.

“I have been in almost every European country because of cross-country skiing,” he said. “I was on the Hungarian national team and almost went to the Olympics. But I didn’t go because I fell in love. I stopped training because of love. We were 19, it was the first love for both of us, and we were crazy.”

“Please tell me you are still together,” I said.

“No,” he said, with a touch of sadness. “It didn’t work. We didn’t talk for four years, but now we are great friends.”

One afternoon we were offered the opportunity to visit the bridge. The second captain, Imre Valentyik, was on duty; there are three captains who rotate. Imre had gone to navigation school for five years and then been a sailor in the Hungarian navy for six years before joining AmaWaterways.

The ship has two 1050 horsepower Caterpillar engines, props that can rotate 360 degrees, and 700 hp side thrusters. It can go 30 kilometers per hour with the current, which were doing on this trip. The Danube seems to be consistently deep – there were between 5 and 6 meters under the keel the whole time we were on the bridge – and without sand bars or anything tricky, except for the locks. We did have to change our schedule one day because of rain and the need to get under one bridge before the water got any higher.

Imre kept the ship on course with a flick of his finger, following the electronic charts and the GPS effortlessly. “Can you see other ships on the river?” he was asked. He tightened in on the GPS and showed us a ship coming toward us several kilometers away. He said it was a cargo ship currently going 12.5 kph. “And the captain,” he said, “his name is Herbert.” All that information was on his screen. Very cool.

Kriss and the team had scheduled interesting excursions almost every day. A large group spent most of one day in Salzburg. We all enjoyed the amazing Abbey at Melk, a massive Baroque structure overlooking the Danube. In the Middle Ages it was a fortress guarding the area from the Turks, but 300 years ago it was refurbished as a monastery, and it’s also a large and active day school with 920 students attending. The monks are good businessmen who have figured out how to make the place prosperous, and 500,000 visitors per year at ten Euros each is a pretty good start. They have come a long way from the day they sold their copy of the original Gutenberg Bible in order to pay to have the roof repaired.

I spent most of one day in Vienna with Greg and Sharon Duggan, who had been there often and knew it well. It was a scouting trip for me since I’ll be back there with my sister in a couple of weeks. An unexpected treat was walking through a nearly deserted amusement park; it’s a little known fact that the three most revered attractions in Vienna are Schonbrunn Palace, St. Stephen’s Cathedral and the bumper cars at Prater Amusement Park.

Of course what made the trip really special was getting to know the other passengers. Some acquaintances were made during the three days in Prague and then it seemed that each day of the cruise you learn three or four more names and stories, so by the end of the trip you feel surrounded by friends. I spent quite a bit of time with the Duggans, who are in the travel industry in the Denver area; Ed and Cindy Berre, the couple from Cincinnati I had dinner with in Prague; and Greg and Becky Graves, from northern Maine. Greg Graves is a big man with a big personality who likes golf and Duke basketball, so you know he’s a hell of a guy.

There were John and Faith, a couple who live in Reno and Phoenix respectively but make it work; Tony and Nancy, who got married two weeks after they met at a hotel he was managing; Lynn and Linda, charming cheeseheads from Wisconsin, home of the Green Bay Packers and tough guys with guns; and the delightful Mary Beth and Jill from Durham, North Carolina. Mary Beth is a doctor whose brother Jim Spanarkel was a great Duke basketball player in the late 70s, the first Duke player to score 2000 career points. These people and others contributed to this being such a memorable experience, and all seemed to agree that spending a week in a nice hotel that floats from one amazing place to another is not a bad way to go.

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