Saturday, January 28, 2017

Escape from Berlin, 1945: a Family Journey

Dear Readers, this article is different than my normal Urban Decay topics. Still, it is a story of decay - of the catastrophic collapse of an evil government and the fate of some of its innocent victims. This is the story of how my family escaped from Berlin in April of 1945 during the chaotic final days of the Second World War in Europe, when the Soviet armies were entering Berlin.

My family came from Greece and moved to Berlin in 1938, when my grandfather got a job in Germany. He was a highway engineer. At this time, the Germans were building the autobahns and were at the forefront of highway technology. My grandfather (Opa) and mother were Greek-born, while my grandmother (Oma) and Aunt Hellas were German-born. Needless to say, moving to Germany in 1938 was a terrible strategic decision.

The family moved to a flat in the Charlottenberg area of Berlin, near the Neu-Westend U-Bahn station and near the 1936 Olympic stadium complex. My mother remembers that they lived on the second floor at the corner of Ratzeburger Allee and Ebereschenallee. These buildings survived the war with little damage, and the area is still a quiet residential district. Some of the apartment blocks are rather severe. I have seen similar apartments in Polish cities, as well.

My mother was a young girl then and did not remember the exact the address of the flat. But when I showed her this picture of the door with twin portholes, she immediately recognized it (you can see it in Photograph 1 behind the yellow car). She said when you entered, one flight of steps led up and another led down to the basement, which was very frightening.

This is Steubenplatz today, with Ebereschenallee coming in from the right. My mother remembers that one store facing the platz in the 1940s was a pharmacy.

This is the Neu-Westend U-Bahn station. The location and shape is likely the same as in the 1940s, and the vertical beams with rivets may be pre-war.

My mother and Hellas went to school. My mother remembers that girls and boys were separated by a barbed wire fence. The teachers were very strict, and everyone had to rise and say, "Heil Hitler." She also remembered seeing Jewish people wearing the large yellow stars on their clothes. A correspondent from Germany wrote that jews in the Reich were forced to wear the yellow star as late as September 1941 (I thought it was much earlier). Jews of German origin were first deported in October of 1940 in south Germany, and mass deportations were as late as October 1941. 

School class portrait, 1942? Mobile phone scan from paper print in album.

After the war started, the family applied to leave Germany, but because my grandmother and Hellas were German-born, they were not allowed to leave. The family was not in a wealth category in which they could buy an exit permit by turning over valuable assets (such as art) or properties.

Opa in his office, 1943 (photographer and exact location unknown)

As the war progressed, my grandfather lost his job. Oma's Uncle Max and his wife took over the apartment so that it would appear to be leased to a German family. Opa had to remain hidden in one room in the flat for fear that he might be arrested. My mother said that other residents surely knew that a Greek family was in the flat, but no one ever turned them in to the police. The ladies were blond and spoke fluent German, so they could leave the flat and move about. The family sold possessions to raise money for food. They had only two food vouchers, for the two German-born  members of the household.

For 18 months, the Allies bombed Berlin day and night, and for most nights, residents had to shelter in the cellars. But Opa had to remain hidden upstairs even during the bombings. One day, a bomb fell through the bathrooms and the tub from above crashed through the ceiling. Luckily, the bomb did not explode. She remembers Opa listening to the BBC on a wireless receiver with a blanket over his head to muffle the sound. Listening to foreign radio was an offense that would lead to execution.

Late in the war, Aunt Hellas and other school-age girls were evacuated to the woods of Prussia to escape the bombing. But she and a young actress or opera singer knew someone important in the Goebbels propaganda organization and they secured travel permits to return to Berlin.

My mother said one day she and Oma were out shopping for vegetables and heard noises of gunfire. The civilian population had been so thoroughly insulated from real news by the government's propaganda, they had no idea the Soviet army was entering the city. Today, we find this hard to believe. But totalitarian governments know that control of the media means they can dominate the populace. 

They rushed home, grabbed a few possessions, and went to the train station. Prior to this, residents were not allowed to leave Berlin, but all order must have broken down. Amazingly, even as the Nazi government was collapsing, trains were still running. I assume they went to the Westend Bahnhof. My mother and Oma went one day, while Opa and Hellas followed a day later. 

The 1946 photograph above shows a tank graveyard near Westend Bahnhof, from :

Their destination was a small town in the Schwarzwald (southwest Germany) named Reichental, where the family had vacationed before the war. Everyone with any sense tried to flee to the west, away from the Soviets. The train ride was terrible. When allied planes flew overhead, everyone got off and sheltered in ditches or fled into fields because the planes strafed the trains. People were packed tight into cattle cars. 

Oma had a brother, Kurt, who had died near Kursk (Russia). His wife was on the train with two children. The baby died, and my mother said they threw the baby out because there was no room. It is hard to believe horrors like this. I do not know if the family was ever in touch with Kurt's wife after the war and do not know what happened to Max and his wife. 

My mother, her sister, sister, Oma, and Opa survived and moved to a United Nations refugee camp. Three of them briefly returned to the apartment in Berlin, I assume to recover documents and possibly some possessions. But essentially they had lost everything. They eventually made it back to Greece in the late-1940s. They had endured a decade of war, tragedy, and turmoil. 

Dear Readers, this was only 72 years ago, in what had been one of the most urbane, educated, and developed countries in the world. So many millions of innocent people suffered and died. But despite the lessons of history, many people are still susceptible to the hollow promises of demagogues and frauds. Consider the 2016 election in the USA and the scammer who entered the White House. Note how he adopted the classic techniques of fascists to ferment discord within the nation, feign victimization of a particular demographic, and then make hollow promises that only he can save the nation. 

Be eternally grateful that we still have an open press free of government censorship in USA. Beware of propaganda tools that parrot the party line and manufacture an alternative fantasy (i.e., Fox News). And beware of banning books in schools and libraries to control the narrative of history and deceive the populace. These are classic tools of totalitarian and fascist governments.

Remain vigilant and never let a war like this happen again.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Cement Silos of Redwood with Fomapan 100 Film

In 2010, I wrote about the deserted cement silos in Redwood, Mississippi. They are still abandoned and loom up above Hwy. 3 in all their concrete ugliness. It is a good site to test film, and I returned to test Fomapan 100 Classic film in my Fuji GW690II medium format camera. The tracks lead to the International Paper mill just to the north.
The brush is pretty thick and it is hard to reach the silos from the former work yard on the west. This photo is not completely sharp because of camera motion.
A hulking ruined concrete mass is in the work yard. Did they pour unwanted concrete into some sort of bin?
This is a loading dock on the railroad side of the main building. Being winter, there were no obvious snakes, bats, or poison ivy present.
This is one of the chutes that would dispense powder into trucks. This was a 4 min. exposure at ƒ/11. The light meter indicated 30 sec. at ƒ/11, but I knew that to adjust for the film's reciprocity, I should use 8 times the metered exposure. Reciprocity failure means that in dim light, film no longer responds in a linear fashion to increasing exposure time. Most film is linear in the range of 1 sec. to 1/1000 sec., but if you are in the range of many seconds or minutes exposure, you need to multiply the light meter setting many times. A Wikipedia article describes the phenomena, or contact me if you want to do some film photography and I would be glad to help.

Film: Fomapan 100 Classic.
Camera: Fuji GW690II with 90mm lens.
Development: Xtol by Praus Productions, Rochester, NY
Scanning: Minolta Scan Multi using SilverFast Ai software, 2820 dpi.
Resize for web display: ACDSee Pro 2.5.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Vicksburg Decay 2016 with Fomapan 100 Film

Mercy Hospital, Vicksburg (currently unused)
This is a three-part experiment: a new film, a commercial laboratory I had not tried before, and new scanner software (I know, I know, too many degrees of freedom).

Experiment 1: A few months ago, I read some highly positive reviews of Adox CHS 100 film, a classical fine-grain black and white film. While in Berlin last September, I stopped at Fotoimpex (a real film store) to buy some, but they were out of stock. The sales agent suggested I try Fomapan 100 Classic, a similar film made in the Czech Republic. Fomapan was established in 1921, so it has a long history of making sensitized materials for the photographic industry.

In December here in Vicksburg, during some overcast days with soft light, I tried a couple of rolls of the Fomapan in my big Fuji GW690II camera (this is a medium format rangefinder camera that takes eight 6×9 frames on a roll of 120 film). I like days with soft light when an exposure will reveal details in the shadows, such as under porch roofs. My usual practice is to overexpose and underdevelop to soften the contrast, so I exposed the Fomapan at EI (exposure index) 64.

Experiment 2: I did not have time to develop the film at home, so I sent it to Praus Productions in Rochester, New York. Praus developed the film in Xtol developer at N-1 (pull one stop), as I specified. The negatives looked pretty good, a bit dense but with full exposure range. Next time I will try EI 80 or 100 to just slightly reduce exposure.

Experiment 3. The Minolta scanning software that came with my "antique" Minolta Scan Multi scanner was pretty kludgy and was low resolution on a modern big monitor. Surprisingly, the German company Lasersoft Imaging still sells a version of their Silverfast Ai software for the Scan Multi. I thought the price was outrageous, but a Christmas 25% sale made it a bit more palatable, so I bought a license for Ai. It runs on my Windows 7 computer and correctly controls the scanner. Result: major improvement over the Minolta software with far more options for film profiles. Note: many photographers use Vuscan software, but I could never get it to work.
Zollinger's Hill Road
Results: Well, I am pleased. These are beautiful full-tone negatives. They have similar grain to Kodak Tri-X, which this reinforces the classical B&W look (which can't be simulated with software). The photograph above of Zollinger's Hill Road almost looks like the bushes are covered with frost, sort of a hidden garden. Click any picture to enlarge it and see the texture.
This is Marcus Street near where it intersects Confederate Avenue. The house is no. 1620. This was a 1/2 sec exposure at f/22, with fill flash to add some light on the tree trunk.
This cottage at 1630 Marcus Street is empty.
These steps are next to 1630 and lead down to Ethel Street. During summer, the jungle mostly engulfs the steps.
Martin Luther King, Jr., Blvd. is the former Openwood Street, leading from downtown east to the Vicksburg Military National Park. It is one of Vicksburg's older streets and is lined with historic cottages.
The cottage at 1900 MLK, Jr., Blvd. suffered a fire.
No. 1826 MLK, Jr., Blvd. is a 1920s or 1930s cottage, now empty.
No. 1832 is a duplex partly sheathed with the concrete material shaped to look like limestone blocks.

In the future, you will see more examples of this Fomapan film as well as the ever-dependable Kodak Tri-X. In the USA, you can order Foma products from Freestyle Photographic Supplies in Los Angeles. Support companies that sell film, and take pictures with film. Really, it will make you a better photographer.
Historic Foma posters are courtesy of Freestyle Photographic Supplies, Los Angeles, California. 

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Travels on the Mother Road, Route 66 - Part 8, Western New Mexico

Let's continue our drive along The Mother Road, Route 66, into New Mexico, the "Land of Enchantment." Crossing the border from Arizona to New Mexico, I was running short on time and could not follow all sections of old 66. In many areas, 66 followed the frontage road paralleling Interstate 40 - I think the original pavement is gone. I headed to Gallup to find a hotel.
The famous El Rancho Hotel is still in business. The western motif is possibly a bit over-the-top, but this is Route 66, and the El Rancho really does ooze the ambiance of the old west, glamour, and movie stars. Numerous stars stayed here while filming classic westerns during the 1930s and 1940s, and guest rooms are labeled with their names rather than numbers. Today, European and Asian tourists love the place.
It would be hard to find a more exuberant lobby than this amazing timber and portrait-filled space with two stately curving wood stairs leading up to the rooms. There is a tiny elevator off to one side, and the desk clerk needs to operate it with a manual lever. I wonder if they once had a fellow dressed as an Indian Chief run the lift?
They assigned me to the Lorraine Day room, which was cosy. The compact bathroom had a tub and plumbing fittings similar to the ones in our 1920s house. The restaurant in the El Rancho is not very inspiring.
Unfortunately, the rest of Gallup is uninspiring, as well. Other than the El Rancho, the other lodgings looked rough. In the morning, I packed up and departed.
I had to push on and continued east. Wow, many people drive 90 mph along Interstate 40. At high altitude, I had to push the old Volvo hard - pedal to the metal. Fortunately, I was able to find gasoline stations with 100% gasoline (meaning no ethanol), which runs better in European cars that predate the ethanol boondogle.
The "top of the world" is the North American Continental Divide, here at an elevation of 7,245 ft (2,208 m).
This map shows the western continental divide, generated from various data sources at (hosted by Esri  (a.k.a. Environmental Systems Research Institute)). West of this dividing line, rainfall flows to the Gulf of California or Pacific Ocean, while rainfall to the east makes its way into the Mississippi River basin and, eventually, to the Gulf of Mexico. In Arizona and west New Mexico, although water flows into the Colorado River, very little reaches the Gulf of California because most is diverted along the way for agriculture and urban use.
Continuing east, I reached Grants, a town in Cibola County, about 80 miles west of Albuquerque. The old Swap Meet had not been swapping for many years.
The pawn shop was a bit more active, with plenty of "old-fashioned" stuff to give it the antique look. The Continental Divide Trail passes near here, and many through hikers pick up supplies or rest in Grants.
The historic Rio Puerco bridge, crossing the Rio Puerco, was built in the 1930s under a program funded by President Roosevelt's administration. It is a Parker truss design bridge, common in the 1920s and 1930s. Interstate 40 now carries traffic across the valley, and this old bridge is for pedestrian use only.

Next stop: Albuquerque.

Photographs taken with a Fuji X-E1 digital camera with various lenses. I broke my Fuji film camera earlier in the trip and therefore could not take real photographs with black and white film.