By Karsten Horn

As the culminating struggle of World War II, the battle for Berlin has spawned libraries of books, several movies and numerous scholarly documentaries. This decisive, bitterly-fought conflict brought victory to the Allied Forces over Nazi Germany and shaped the geopolitical and economic face of post-war Europe.

Seventy-five years after the war’s end, the physical consequences—very obvious in the Eastern part of the city until 1990—of the bloody street-by-street fight have largely vanished. Still, many memorials, bunkers, fortifications, and museums remain today. Here are a dozen:AdobeStock ReichstagBerlin Reichstag

• Begin with the Reichstag, the seat of Parliament in Imperial Germany, the BerlinReichstag1 July1983Berlin Reichstag July 1983Weimar Republic and, since 1998, in the Federal Republic. Visiting the Reichstag is free but advance online registration is required. An elevator takes visitors to the top of the building where they can walk inside the glass dome, with its spectacular view of the city center. Many tableaux provide information covering the history of the building and German politics in general.

• A small memorial to the troops of the Soviet Union is only a short stroll from the Reichstag, on Strasse des 17 Juni. It features a statue of a soldier on a large column placed in front of a semi-arc with inscriptions and flanked by two T34 tanks. The memorial is very close to Brandenburg Gate and worth a visit. AdobeStock BrandenburgBrandenburg Gate Today

• From Brandenburg Gate, walk along Wilhelmstrasse, to the site of Hitler’s 
Reichskanzlei
(Reich Chancellery), which today is an apartment block and a Chinese restaurant. 

• Hermann Goering’s Reichsluftfahrtministerium (Imperial Ministry of Aviation) is only a few hundred yards farther along. The building has been described as BerlinBrandenburgGate1 July1983Brandenburg Gate July 1983being “in the typical style of National Socialist intimidation architecture.” The vast structure served the growing bureaucracy of the Luftwaffe and Germany’s civil aviation authority, offering space to 4,000 office workers. After the war, the building, which survived with very little damage, was used by the Soviet military administration until 1948, and from 1947-49 by the German Economic Commission, which became the top administrative body in the Soviet Occupation Zone. 

Tempelhof Airport, reached by a brisk walk of about two miles straight along Wilhelmstrasse and Mehringdamm (or take Subway U 6 to “Platz der Luftbrücke” station), has been described by architect Sir Norman Foster as “the mother of all airports.” Built in the monumental style that characterizes many buildings of that era between the World Wars, it was once among the 20 largest buildings on earth. Its size can now be fully experienced by visitors as the airport has been closed for air traffic since 2008 and the airfield is now a public park.

During the war, the building, which has an underground railway running its three-quarters of a mile length, was an aircraft factory. It was used as a military airfield by the US Air Force from 1945 until 1994, and is best remembered for its role in the famous airlift to supply Berliners with the necessities of life during the Soviet Union’s blockade of the city.

• One of the least-known of Berlin’s WWII sites, the German-Russian Museum in Berlin-Karlshorst, has an enormous amount of well-presented material. This is where the unconditional surrender of the Wehrmacht was signed in May, 1945. Formerly known as the “Museum of Victory over Nazi Germany in the Great Fatherlands War,” this rather unassuming villa on the outskirts of Berlin is within a complex that housed the General Command of Soviet forces in East Germany. There is the usual display of armor such as a T34 tank and Katyusha rocket launcher in the garden. The hall where the surrender was signed is preserved intact. The museum is eight miles from the city center and not well connected by public transport (train S3 from Friedrichstrasse to Karlshorst station, then bus 396 and a short walk). 

• Another major collection of documents and historic materials is at the Museum of Allied Forces in Zehlendorf. The focus here is on the war’s long aftermath.

There is a British “Hastings” four-engine propeller airplane, a railroad car from a French military train, and the original guardhouse of Checkpoint Charlie on Friedrichstrasse (the one placed there now is a replica). The museum is housed in the former U.S. forces cinema “The Outpost,” and has memorabilia from the time of the Allied (or, since the spring of 1948, not-so-allied) Forces rule of Berlin. It can be reached by subway (line U3 to station Oskar-Helene-Heim, then a few blocks north on foot), and is a nice stopover from the city center on the way to the next site. 

Cecilienhof Palace in Potsdam is the site of the Potsdam Conference. This charming mock-Tudor palace, completed in 1917, is where Truman, Churchill and Stalin met to decide how to proceed after the victory in Europe, known as the Potsdam Agreement. The meeting is commemorated in the palace courtyard by a big red star of flowers. 

• Back in the city, a visit to the remains of one of the large anti-aircraft defense (flak) bunkers is of interest. It is located at Humboldthain, quite close to the city center. The reinforced concrete tower had 12-foot thick foundations and inner and outer walls offering another 11.5 feet of protection. Most of the tower was demolished after the war, but the north face was too close to the railway, and is a preferred site for climbers now. The bunker can be toured between April and October. The platforms at the top of the tower offer beautiful views of the city center. 

• The battle of Berlin took many lives, and thus there are many war cemeteries in and around the city. Probably the most impressive is the huge (40 acres) Soviet War Memorial in Treptower Park, built in stalinistic monumental architectural style. The central area is lined on both sides by 16 stone sarcophagi, made from travertine marble taken from the destroyed Reichskanzlei, with relief carvings of military scenes and quotes from Stalin. The impressive focal point is the 39-foot high statue of a Soviet soldier with a sword standing over a broken swastika and holding a German child. This memorial is interesting, beyond its historic significance as a prime example of “Soviet Realism” art. It can be reached by S-Bahn (station Treptower Park) and a one-mile walk to the park. 

• The last two sites are outside Berlin. First is Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, near Oranienburg. Built in 1936, it acquired a special role in the Nazi system as the administrative headquarters for all German concentration camps. More than 200,000 people were imprisoned here between 1936 and 1945 and tens of thousands died of starvation, disease, forced labor, and mistreatment. Many more died during the death marches following the camp’s evacuation at the end of April 1945. It is a sad irony of history that following the defeat of Nazi Germany it continued operation as Soviet Special Camp No. 7 until it was closed in 1950.

Sachsenhausen can be reached by S-Bahn (station Oranienburg), with a short walk from the station. 

Seelow Heights Memorial is near the Polish border, about 45 miles from Berlin. This humble ridge of no more than 50 meters in height appears innocent enough today, but it posed a serious impediment to the Soviet onslaught in the Battle of Berlin, giving the German forces free shooting range over about 10 miles of flat land. The small museum commemorates the battle in which nearly one-million Soviet and Polish troops opposed about 110,000 German forces. Alas, the website is only in German, but there is a good article on the battle on Wikipedia.

(Ed. Note: Karsten Horn is a lifelong Berliner, a World War II history buff, a retired scientist from the famed Max Planck Institute, and, best of all, a longtime friend to Gemut.com.)

 

Remembering John K. Bestor

December 15, 1921- October 5, 2008

It's a bright, cool morning in the summer of 1944. For reasons I no longer remember, if I ever knew, we are ambling toward downtown. It’s not far; Plattsmouth, Nebraska—about 18 miles from Omaha—is a small town of perhaps 5,000 residents. I'm six, he's 22 and a first lieutenant in the Army Artillery, but about to get captain's bars. In a few days he will be in Germany and, in the spring of '45, sit on the very tip of the Allied spear aimed at the heart of Berlin and Victory in Europe. But on this day he's letting his nephew tag along, treating him like a person instead of a kid.

"Whaddaya wanna talk about?," says the lieutenant. "I dunno," replies the kid. "Well then, how ‘bout God, man, woman and the universe?" And so began a conversation that lasted for 64 years and covered sports, politics, music, food, wine, the stock market, computers, and most of all, European travel—especially Germany. It all came to an end very early Sunday morning, October 5th, in a Kansas City, Missouri, nursing home. To be completely accurate, the actual talking stopped several years ago when the Alzheimer's began in earnest to do its awful work on his fine brain (he was a high school valedictorian who never cracked a book, top of his University of Nebraska law school class, and senior partner in what, at the time, was middle America's largest law firm Liz and Uncle John Moulin a Vent 1973outside of Chicago).

I’m talking about my uncle, John K. Bestor, without whom there would be no Gemütlichkeit travel newsletter, no Gemut.com.

While growing up, I never dreamed of travel in Europe, especially on my own, and especially in Germany. I knew no language but English and I pictured Germany to be the bombed-out, rubble-strewn place I had seen in newsreels. But in 1973 Uncle John introduced Liz and me to independent European travel when he convinced us to meet him in France, where we toured by car for a few days together, visiting Bordeaux, Burgundy (Liz and John at Moulin-a-Vent, 1973, photo right) and Alsace. He taught us the Michelin Red Guides, detailed maps, and the backcountry byways he called "Yellow Roads" (their color on maps). Then, at my uncle’s urging, using our newfound travel skills, the next European destination was Germany where he had been going annually for several years. I was immediately captivated and, somehow scraping up the money, we returned year after year.

We didn't travel much with John, managing only a few times to connect with him for a day or two. He liked the solitude of his little rental car and the backroads, stopping at tiny inns where he could speak German and drink beer with the locals. On his last few trips he rented flats in the Partenkirchen end of Garmisch-Partenkirchen where he basked in the Bavarian country culture and the slow pace of village life. Regrettably, his first wife, Fritzi, who died in the early ‘90s, didn't travel. I am sure it was one of his life’s joys that his second wife, Lorena, accompanied him on those last visits.

Over the years 1965 to the early '80s, my jobs with professional sports teams took me frequently to Kansas City. When I came to town with the Oakland Raiders, John would prepare great feasts for me and my colleagues and friends in the media. He was an adventurous cook and had what must have been one of the town's best wine cellars. Long before movie stars and dot.com multi-millionaires drove up the price of French wines in this country, John was laying down case upon case of classified growth Bordeaux, and top-of-the-line Burgundies, both red and white. For us, he poured Chateau Latour 1962, '59 Chateau Palmer, the fabulous dessert wine of Sauterne, Chateau d'Yquem, the great ports of the celebrated '63 vintage, and his favorite bubblies, Moet and Cristal.

Some of my friends became his friends. The late Bill King, longtime San Francisco Bay Area football (Raiders) baseball (A's)and basketball (Warriors) broadcaster, hooked up with John for lunch or dinner every time he was in Kansas City.

There was nothing John would rather do than practice law, often saying it was so much fun he’d do it for free. Among his clients were several Fortune 500 companies. His specialty was labor law, and he lived for the negotiations; the ultimate test of his experience, knowledge, wit and nerve. At his funeral, his son-in-law, Les, told me he had seen a newspaper article that listed the midwest’s top attorneys as rated by their peers; John was number one in the labor category. He kept the same clients for decades, only stepping down when, at the onset of Alzheimer’s, he realized his mind might fail him—and his clients—at a critical moment.

It wasn't just how to travel in Europe that I learned from my uncle. Looking back over the past 40 years, it's clear he was a pretty hip guy. He told me about Warren Buffet in the mid ‘70’s. He managed his own investments, pouring over Barron's, the Wall Street Journal, Investor's Business Daily and Valueline. He eagerly anticipated personal computers and in 1983 purchased one of the first IBM PCs. With a pioneer investment software called Dow Jones Analyzer, he monitored his stocks and made buy-sell decisions. A wise and prudent investor, he made millions in the market.

Being a well-heeled, sought-after attorney changed my uncle not a bit. He belonged to a country club but never went there. Kansas City society bored him. Instead he spent much of his free time, probably too much for his marriage and family, in Luigi's, a small restaurant and bar that, for a time, ran a wide-open bookmaking operation, posting odds on a chalkboard behind the bar. Its owner, Luigi Bonura, who became perhaps John’s closest friend, was rumored to be “connected,” a notion my uncle dismissed. On Sunday mornings after Mass, John would visit his mother (my grandmother) and then drop by Luigi’s for a beer. Kansas City’s “blue laws” prevented the sale of alcohol on Sundays, but Luigi did paperwork on Sunday and discreetly hosted two or three of his favorite customers. Among them was a tiny, shabbily-dressed man who owned a number of office buildings in the Kansas City area. One morning this eccentric, five-foot tycoon choose me to complain to about the runaround he was getting at the local power company. “In life,” he said in his thick mid-European accent, “one God, one wife, but not one power company.”

My uncle was also, of course, a member of the so-called "greatest generation;" those men who risked their lives for an ideal, got the job done, and never talked much about it afterward. I did coax one story out of him, however.

As U.S. forces moved eastward across Germany in early1945, his assignment was to fly in a light plane over the German lines and assess their positions and strength. On one mission he and his pilot were forced down in the no-man's land behind the retreating Germans, but ahead of the advancing U.S. Army. There was no choice but to spend the night with the airplane. At dusk, a handful of thin, raggedly-dressed men materialized in the gloom about 50 meters from the airplane. Gesturing toward a bucket on the ground before them, they beckoned the Americans to approach. With great caution and drawn pistols, my uncle and his pilot slowly advanced. The scarecrows were, of course, DPs (displaced persons), Eastern European forced laborers, abandoned by the Germans to survive on their own. Cool white wine sloshed in their bucket. They led the way to a nearby cave where a river of wine splashed onto the cave floor from the open spigot of a huge cask. Needless to say, a good deal more wine was drunk that night than the currently recommended, heart-healthy glass or two per day. Though the language barrier prevented meaningful conversation there were many toasts and much laughter.

Very early the next morning, my uncle and his pilot awoke, no doubt massively hungover—an affliction John claimed he never suffered from—in a rain puddle under the airplane’s wing. The small cask of wine they had rolled from the cave was too heavy or too large to fit in the plane so they hid it in brush, hoping to retrieve it later. They never found it.

The day the war in Europe ended, John watched the celebration from a rooftop in Stuttgart. A German man tried to shake his hand but, with the fresh memory of a liberated concentration camp, he refused. It was one of the few acts in his life he regretted.

He remained in Germany for several months after V-E Day, living with several other Army officers in a house in Heidelberg (2 Helmholtzstrasse, it’s still there), near the Neckar River. He came home on a slow troop ship, playing poker constantly during the eight-day crossing. But something in Germany pulled him back and he returned many times.

Not many people got close to him, and I count myself fortunate to be among the few. He was a mentor whose advice I frequently sought. “What would Uncle John do in this situation?,” is a question I still ask myself—a sensible exercise because he was perhaps the least impulsive, slowest to anger, clearest thinking person I’ve ever known.

“Iron-ass” was the joking term John sometimes used to describe a category of people he admired. Iron-asses never break their word and never compromise their values. No matter how hard the winds blow, they stand fast. But most of all, regardless the circumstance, they can always and absolutely be depended upon. I’ve only met a handful who meet those qualifications, and sad to say, as of October 5, 2008, there’s one fewer than there used to be.—Bob Bestor

In December, this customer took advantage of our guaranteed Avis upgrade in Germany. He booked an economy category car and was given a free upgrade to a 4-door, VW-made Seat Leon Station Wagon. For a 15-day rental he paid $21.93 per day including 19% value added tax, 22% airport fee, and winter tires.

There is also a guaranteed upgrade from compact to intermediate (VW Passat or similar) and intermediate to full-size (Mercedes C-Class or similar) that includes free GPS. Get a quote here.

rsz mercedes benz 1370536 640By far the best deal on a European car rental is in Germany.

Book an intermediate category car and receive a free, guaranteed-in-writing upgrade to a full-size category car with GPS. Cars in the full-size category include the Mercedes Benz C-Class, Audi A4, BMW 3 series, and others.

The price for one-week is $216 plus about $10 in road tax. The two week price is $367. (This same car is priced for one week at $386 at the Avis website).