Saturday, October 13, 2012

Nazis Underground

After walking countless kilometers through Vienna (the ratio is 20-to-1 in Misti’s favor) and having free time not influenced by Keir’s student schedule, we are trying to broaden our horizons and look for adventures that involve more than strolling by Beethoven’s house, or hanging out in the same coffee house that Freud and Tolstoy used to frequent.  How jaded we’ve become.

So last Saturday, a gorgeous fall day, we jumped into the Kangoo, turned on the GPS, and programed in “Seegrotte,” the largest underground lake in Europe that is so big you can actually cruise upon it in a boat.  The lake is located in Hinterbrühl, a 6,000-year-old town I hadn’t heard of but should have. 

The Mine at Hinterbrül

To our surprise, the GPS machine said Hinterbrühl was a mere 17 kilometers from the center of Vienna – closer than the schloss I work in.  Off we went, and after driving a short way, we were in the scenic hills and woods on the west side of Vienna, and then, suddenly, we were there.  It was a bit like driving from downtown DC to Bethesda, or Minneapolis to St. Paul.

Hinterbrül is picturesque, but it is less an identifiable village and more a collection of buildings, old and new, scattered on steep hillsides among the trees of the Vienna Woods.  The lake, as we learned before we ventured out, is in the lower level of an old gypsum mine that dates back to 1848.  I had heard that this was the place used by the Nazis late in World War II to build fighters deep underground, safe from the increasingly frequent bombings by the Allies.

The Passageway
As we walked to the entrance, it occurred to us that an old gypsum mine used by the Nazis wasn’t the same as our visits to Luray Caverns in Virginia or Wind Cave in South Dakota’s Black Hills.  But the largest underground lake in Europe, natural or not, had promise, so we paid the 9 Euros, put on our coats, and headed into the darkness with our gruff Austrian tour guide.

One enters the mine through a 230-meter brick-lined passageway that is cold, narrow and looking every bit of its 164 years.  The guide warned us to watch our heads and our steps, as sometimes the walk is a bit slippery, but eventually the passage opened into a small cavern, or room.  The guide lectured in both German and English about gypsum mining (it’s used in fertilizer), and we learned that there were three levels to the mine. In 1912 miners broke through some rock on the lower level and suddenly 20 million liters of water from local springs flooded in, creating the lake.  The mine was closed shortly thereafter.

Deeper in the Mine 

We walked past the room where the miners ate dinner, then past the stables, where we learned that the 20 or so horses in the mine (used to power the hoists) were intentionally blinded before they were brought into the mine because they then behaved better in the darkness.

The Fuselage
Farther on we paused at an alcove that contained the corroding fuselage of a jet fighter, along with a model of the plane, and a few other aircraft body parts.  This was the He 162, the first jet fighter, developed by the Nazis near the end of WW II.  I’d heard about this plane when I was a kid (my dad was in the Air Force), but didn’t know much about it.  What I learned on the tour was horrifying … not because of the airplane itself but because of how it was manufactured in the cave.

The Plaque
As we wandered along, we heard mention of the 2,000 Italian prisoners of war, along with countless others from a nearby concentration camp, who worked in the cave building airplanes (not just the jet  but other Luftwaffe fighters).   There was a plaque on the wall of the cave system’s chapel commemorating the workers who were forced into the cave as laborers.

The Chapel
Misti and I looked at each other and started thinking about all of those people working and dying in this place, and once again we realized that no matter where you are in Vienna, or much of Austria, the ugly history is just below the surface – literally in this instance.  Our adventure to the cave suddenly felt more like a tour of a concentration camp.

The Factory 
A little more research revealed how justified that feeling was.  What the tour guide didn’t say (to his credit, he did use the phrase “those horrible times,” once), was that a satellite concentration camp to the much larger Mauthausen concentration camp near Linz was built in Hinterbrül in 1943 to move labor closer to the cave system, which was converted to an aircraft factory in 1944-45.  In the last months of the war, concentration camp inmates were force marched from other concentration camps to the mine; virtually none of them survived.  In 1945, 51 inmates were killed by the SS (in which the Austrians were disproportionately represented) in a single, awful incident just before they were to begin their march to the mine.  There is apparently a monument to these 51 souls erected in 1988 near the subterranean lake, but we didn’t see it.
Building a Jet

Outside the Entrance 
The airplane factory itself, we were told, was on the lower level, where the lake is now.  The Nazis pumped the water out, laid cement flooring, and started building fuselages for the fighters.  They could only build fuselages and other smaller parts because the cave system only has the one entrance …  the narrow, 230-meter long entrance passageway.  The fuselages barely fit through the passageway. The rails for the transport carts are still there.

In various places in the mine are signs with a symbol that consists of a crossed hammer and pick, with the letters “G” and “A” (see top photo).  The letters stand for “Glück Auf,” or “Good Luck.”  Mining in the 1800s was so dangerous “Gluck Auf” became the miner’s motto.  We imagined how cruel those words seemed to the forced laborers in the caves.

The Dragon Boat 
St. Barbara Room
We were shown a large room with candles and a religious icon, one of several Catholic shrines to Saint Barbara within the mine, and told that the Vienna Boys Choir occasionally sings there and as many as 2,000 listeners attend the concert – about the same as the number of prisoners and concentration camp inmates who worked in the mine at any one time. Then we went down a long staircase to the lake, which featured an anchored golden dragon boat used in the 1993 “Three Musketeers” movie.  The boat, along with a movie poster on a nearby wall, seemed eerily out-of-place.  At the end of the tour, we rode around the lake on a tourist boat for 20 minutes as the guide pointed out a fountain, the wall the water had come through back in 1912, and a handful of other sites.

But it was hard to pay attention.  There were too many ghosts.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Superfly On The Danube

When we first arrived in Vienna in 2010, one of the biggest surprises was the music.   Vienna was home to Mozart, Strauss, Beethoven and other composers and musicians whose work defines Western classical music.  Indeed, the streets of the First District are replete with costumed Mozarts selling tickets to the many performances of his work.

Mozart in Vienna
The other traditional music here is German/Austrian folk and band music that is just a step removed from American polka and square dance and is typically played happily with tubas or sousaphones  (I have a recurring image of Mozart, in lederhosen, slap dancing [Schuhplatter] in a Viennese bier hall.  It must have happened).  It isn’t unusual to see bands playing German drinking music as you walk around downtown.

I lived in Germany when I was a kid, so I’m familiar with the traditional music, and although I’m a rube when it comes to classical music, I do know the major players.   With that background, I turned on my new Austrian radio back in 2010.  There was no Mozart or Beethoven.  Nor did I hear sousaphones. Instead it was Chubby Checker, the Tokens, Joey Dee and the Starlighters, and a slew of lesser-known American “artists”.  What was truly odd was Chubby Checker wasn’t singing “the Twist,” the Tokens weren’t singing “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” and Joey Dee and the boys weren’t doing “Shout” or “The Peppermint Twist.” The radio stations in Vienna seemed to have the greatest collection of the “B” sides of obscure old American pop records imaginable. 
Joey Dee 

The tunes were “B” sides for a reason.  The songs were mostly awful and I wondered why they were being played.  The answer came when Keir discovered “rock” music sung in German.  Listening to a few of those songs helped explain.  Even atrocious old American songs were better than many of the European rock tunes.

Of course the British rock and pop music rates highly.  Who could dis the country that brought us the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and a host of other first-rate rockers? But they don’t get much airtime either.

An Australian colleague at IIASA who was addicted to Joni Mitchell (not a bad thing) and candles in her office eventually alerted me to FM4, the cool, hip radio station that has disc jockeys from England and Austria. Their on-air conversations shift between English and German in the space of a few seconds. They assume a lot of their audience.

“FM Fear” was a godsend.  The music is progressive and mostly American, with the good European tunes – and there are some -- mixed in. The on air talent – be it Nina of Austria or Stuart of England – is entertaining.  On the hour there is news in English, usually read by a Brit, and on the half hour – depending on which half hour – there is news in French or German. 

The message from all of this? If you want to find a field in which America still leads the world, listen to music almost anywhere.  Much of it will be American.  With some notable exceptions, when you listen to the other stuff, you know why.

We have attended a classical concert or two since we’ve been here, listened to traditional German/Austrian music played on the streets, and been to a jazz show by an American singer.  But, given the prices of concerts, our live music experiences have been limited.

So imagine our excitement when we came across “Swingin’ for Obama,” a night of rock and blues at the hip Vienna nightclub Metropol.  The price of admission was a donation to the Obama campaign (for U.S. citizens) or 25 Euros for EU citizens.  We arrived, bought our Obama T-shirts (again, only U.S. citizens as the proceeds went to the campaign and no foreign money is allowed), and were immediately blown away by American singer and piano player Joey Green and his soul review, known as RayVille (see top photo).  Ray Charles tunes, followed by more Ray Charles tunes, and capped off with Percy Mayfield’s “Hit The Road, Jack,” filled the club.  The Jolettes, the Austrian version of the Raylettes – in red dresses of course – were exactly what they were supposed to be.

The T-shirt

As we used to say back in my rock band days, “these guys can play.”   And RayVille was just the opening act.   There were six other acts, including “Big John” Whitfield  and Carole Alston.  When Big John did James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s World,” followed by “Sex Machine,” … well, you had to be there.  And to make sure this was an American night, there was a set by J. Reuben Silverbird, who took a break from preparing his one man show, “Memories of Geronimo,” to sing love songs from his new CD, “Ageless Love.”

Silverbird Sings
Sitting in a hot Vienna nightclub with 300 or so mostly Americans listening to a Native American singing love ballads in between sets of Ray Charles and James Brown is . . . not typical.    The love ballads were wanting, but when Silverbird performed a traditional Apache chant, with the audience participating, it somehow worked.

Müller and "Big John"
The stars of the night were the Austrian backup band – The Surfing Zebras -- who blew the house down on almost every song.   They bill themselves as a “groovin’ bugaloo band,” but they were shifting gears and playing complex blues, soul, jazz, rock, and even show tunes from charts, for several hours.  The lead Zebra, Tom Müller, is a stunningly good sax player.

We came out of the Metropol around midnight with our Obama T-shirts, enormous amounts of energy, and the joy that comes from hours of watching fine blues and jazz musicians working hard.

And since that night I’ve added an unlikely Vienna radio station to my auto tune buttons in the Kangoo: Superfly Radio.  The station, an ode to the 1972 movie, is all R&B, all the time.  Doesn’t quite go with a drive along the Danube, but goodness is the music good.