500 Years of the 95 Theses Celebrated in Germany

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Magdeburg Cathedral, one of the places where Martin Luther spread his influence. Photo taken in 2011

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BERLIN/ERFURT/ LUTHERSTADT-WITTENBERG- You see me, and we see you. The slogan for the 36th annual Day of Christianity (Kirchentag), which ended yesterday with an open-air church service on the field along the Elbe River in Lutherstadt-Wittenberg.  Located between Leipzig and Berlin, Wittenberg was the central stage for Martin Luther, who was a professor of theology 500 years ago- a revolutionary who posted the 95 Theses on the doors of the church in the city with its present-day population of over 30,000 inhabitants. It is this city, where the two-day event commemorated the historic event, which reshaped Christianity and created the church that still bears its name.  Over 400,000 visitors participated in the four-day event, which started in Berlin, but also featured regional events in cities where Luther had its strongest influence: Leipzig, Erfurt, Weimar, Jena, Eisleben, Halle and even Magdeburg had festivities from Thursday to Saturday for Christians, tourists, families and people wanting to know more about Luther and his interpretation of the Lord Jesus Christ.

In Wittenberg alone, roughly 120,000 visitors converged onto the field along the Elbe River and at the city center, to take part in the evening light show and open air reflections on Saturday, followed by an open-air church service on Sunday. Despite the sweltering heat, people had an opportunity to listen to the sermons as well as the discussion forum, one of which involved newly-elected German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who took over for Joachim Gauck in February this year.

In Berlin, where over 245,000 visitors took part in the festivities, especially at Brandenburg Gate, the events marked the welcoming back of former US President Barack Obama, who, together with Chancellor Angela Merkel, criticized Donald Trump’s policy of isolation with his plan for building the Wall to Mexico and isolating the country from its international obligations.

And as for the regional places, according to reports by MDR, the numbers were much lower than expected. In Erfurt, Jena and Weimar alone, only 42,000 visitors attended the events from Thursday to Saturday. However, the events were overshadowed by warm, summer weather, the Handel festival that began in Halle, the relegation soccer game between Jena and Cologne, where the former won the first of two games, and lastly, the Luther events at the aforementioned places in Berlin and Wittenberg.

This was noticeable during my visit in Erfurt on Friday with my wife and daughter. There, despite having over a dozen booths, podium discussions in several churches, tours of the churchs’ chapels and steeples as well as several plays and concerts and a pilgrimage from Stotternheim to the city center, the majority of the visitors took advantage of the beautiful weather for other activities.  It had nothing to do with attempts to recruit and convert people to become Lutheran on the spot. One should not interpret Luther and his teachings like this. In fact at a few sites that feature plays and musicals for children, such as Luther and Katharina as well as the Luther Express where children learned about Jesus during each of the four seasons, the layout and preparations were simple but well thought out with no glorifying features and some informative facts presented, which attracted a sizable number of people in the audience (between 50 and 60).

The lack of numbers might have to do with the fact that despite Christianity dominating Germany at 59%, only 28% consists of Lutherans in general. In the US, over 46% consists of Protestants, of which 26% are Evangelicals. 71% of the population are Christians. Given the low number of people belonging to the church, the United Lutheran Church Association of Germany (EKD) and other organizations worked together to make the Luther festival informative, attracting people from different denominations so that they know about Luther’s legacy both in Germany as well as above. It doesn’t necessarily mean that membership is obligatory. Much of the population are sceptical about the beliefs in Jesus, which is one of the reasons of why a quarter of the 41% are aethesists or agnostics. This leads to the question of why Christ is not important to them while at the same time why people in Germany elect to join the church. This question I had touched on in a conversation with one of the pastors of a local church, which will be brought up in a later article.

Nevertheless, when summarizing the events of this weekend, it was deemed a success in many ways. It provided visitors with a glimpse of Luther’s legacy, especially in Wittenberg, where his 95 Thesis was the spark that started the fire and spread to many cities in the region. It also brought together friends and strangers alike, Christian and non-Christian to remember the 500th anniversary of the establishment of the Lutheran Church we know today, branches included. Exhibits on Luther can be found in Wittenberg but also at the places where Luther played a key role. For more, please click here to see where you can visit the sites.

You can also read up on the pilgrimage of six people, who marched on Lutherstadt-Wittenberg for the events by foot, bike or even boat, camping along the way. Each pair started their tour from Erfurt, Eisleben and Dessau-Rosslau, respectively. Here you can find their stories.

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Supermoon in Germany

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JENA/ KIEL/ BERLIN/ CHEMNITZ/MANNHEIM-  Hundreds of thousands of people armed themselves with cameras, telescopes and Smartphones to capture this moment in time. On Tuesday, the supermoon made its visit to the European part of the world, including Germany. Between 5:00pm and 8:15am Berlin time, people had a chance to watch the moon rise and set, looking 20% bigger than it usually is. While many people were awed by its shades of red, peach and dark yellow color luminating the sky at moonrise and at moonset, its brightness- which was 30% more than normal- provided many photographers with a chance to take some pictures of the scenery, as the skies that evening were brighter than what it is with a normal full moon. This unusual phenomenon, which last happened in 1948, occurred when the moon was only 221,524 miles away from Earth. Its next such occurrance will happen in 2034- 18 years from now.

In Germany itself, much of the country was able to take advantage of at least the rise of the moon, as seen in the films taken below in Kiel, Berlin, Chemnitz and Mannheim. However, as the weather system bringing mild temperatures and showers started moving in, it became very difficult to take some pictures of the supermoon at its brightest. In my case, being stationed in Jena (Thuringia), I was lucky to get some grand opportunities and take some pictures of the moon- close-ups after moonrise at around 5:30pm, and when it was shining at its brightest while biking at around 9:30pm. A gallery of the pics are towards the end of this article. The pics included scenes with the landscape and the bike, including some sillouettes. Clouds started moving in shortly before 10pm, which was followed by rain a couple hours later, yet for those who did get the chance to do that, it was  one of a lifetime. But sometimes luck comes in twos, which means the next supermoon, for those who missed this one, will be here sooner than you think.

Enjoy the following film scenes and my pictures below! A link to another gallery of supermoon pics, courtesy of National Geographic, can be seen by clicking here. 🙂

 

(Source: Chemnitz Free Press)

 

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ICE-Line Erfurt-Leipzig/Halle(Saale) Open to Traffic

Galloping Gertie (the author's bike) and the ICE-T train at Leipzig Central Station. Photo taken in Dec. 2015
Galloping Gertie (the author’s bike) and the ICE-T train at Leipzig Central Station. Photo taken in Dec. 2015

 

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ERFURT/LEIPZIG/HALLE(SAALE)- It took 25 years of planning, of which 19 years of construction and delays, but now, the new ICE Train Line has become a reality. Several prominent politicians, including German chancellor Angela Merkel, the ministers of Thuringia, Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt and the CEO of the German Railways (Die Bahn) were on hand at Leipzig Central Station to open the new rail line between Erfurt and Leipzig/Halle to rail traffic. According to information from German public radio/TV MDR, the ceremony featured two special ICE-T trains, carrying invited guests, travelling side-by-side from Erfurt to its final destination in Leipzig, where they were greeted by hundreds of people including those involved in the 2.9 billion Euro project. “The new ICE line is a gift for the 25-years of German unity,” said Merkel at the ceremony in Leipzig. Thuringian minister Bodo Ramelow considered this day a historic one and the line would turn Thuringia into a economic hub.  The Erfurt-Leipzig/Halle line is part of the project to connect Berlin and Munich via Erfurt and the Thuringian Forest, and the northern part is half of the two-part project, which will start serving passengers beginning on Sunday. The southern part from Erfurt to Nuremberg via Suhl is expected to be completed in 2017, even though all of the bridges and tunnels have been completed already.

The opening of the northern half of the new line will mark the beginning of the end of long-distance train service for Weimar, Naumburg and Jena, for Weimar will lose its ICE stop by year’s end and will have InterCity trains stopping in the city. Jena and Naumburg will still have their ICE stops until the end of 2017. Afterwards InterCity trains are expected to serve the two cities with Jena-Göschwitz train station to become Jena Central Station and serving InterCity lines between Karlsruhe and Leipzig (after 2023) and between Chemnitz/Gera and Cologne (after 2017). Also planned after 2017 is ICE to Berlin from Jena twice a day. The cities will also lose its night train network, as Die Bahn plans to decommision the City Night Line service altogether by 2017. A CNL line connecting Prague and Berlin with Basel and Zurich runs through Naumburg, Weimar and Erfurt. Whether another international line connecting Paris and Moscow via Erfurt will use the new line or the old one remains open.

 

Halle(Saale) Central Station. Photo taken in Dec. 2015
Halle(Saale) Central Station. Photo taken in Dec. 2015

Here are some interesting facts to know about the northern half of the ICE line between Erfurt and Leipzig/Halle:

  1. The new rail line is 123 kilometers long, which is half the distance needed with the older line going through Weimar and Naumburg
  2. One can reach Leipzig in 40 minutes and Halle (Saale) in 35. This is half to a third as long as with the old line, counting the stops, regardless of what type of long-distance train used.
  3. The trip to Berlin from Frankfurt (Main) is reduced by up to 50 minutes.
  4. ICE Trains travelling the new line can maximize their speed to 300 kilometers/hour (187 miles/hour)
  5. The opening of the line will also usher in the ICE-Sprinter connecting Berlin with Frankfurt with stops in either Erfurt or Leipzig. Before, the Sprinter travelled north to Hanover before heading east to the German capital.
  6. Seven bridges and two tunnels serve the new line. The longest tunnel is the Finnetunnel, which is 6.9 kilometers long and located at the border between Thuringia and Saxony-Anhalt near Bad Bibra. The longest bridge is the Saale/Elster Viaduct, located south of Halle (Saale) near Schkopau. The 8.5 kilometer long bridge features a 6.4 kilometer long viaduct (Leipzig-bound) crossing the two rivers and the 2.1 kilometer long branch viaduct going to Halle (Saale). The viaduct is the longest of its kind in Europe.
  7. Freight trains can also use the new line, but will be restricted to night time use only due to less train traffic.
  8. Die Bahn plans to install a automated man-less train system on the line in the future- most likely when the entire line is finished in 2017. Basically, trains would be operated automatically from the train stations, and can stop automatically when problems arises. The Shinkansen high-speed train in Japan is the only system known to have this function.
  9. Citizens in Halle (Saale) will benefit from the connection as its train station is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year.
  10. The opening will mark the total completion of the renovation of Leipzig Central Station, which included an underground tunnel connecting the station with the Bavarian railway station south of the city, and the introduction and expansion of the City Lines (S-bahn) connecting the city with Bitterfeld, Halle, Geitahin, Altenberg and Zwickau.
  11. The opening of the line will also usher in the introduction of the Abellio train service to serve Erfurt and points to the east. Abellio is owned by the Dutch Rail Services.

 

Erfurt Central Station after the snow storm in December 2010
Erfurt Central Station after the snow storm in December 2010

More information on the ICE-Trains can be found here. Otherwise, here’s a question for our travellers: which is better: train lines that get you to your destination directly without any chance of seeing much of the view because of speed and time or train lines with stops in between to provide some scenic views? It depends on which line has to offer, but what is your view?

 

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Americans in Germany 2: Hometown Locals

Left to right: Jason D. Smith, Amanda (Draine) Sutton, Kristin (Svoboda) Krahmer, Brian Krahmer. Photo taken by Birgit Smith in 2014 in Jena.

There is an idiomatic expression that best describes a well-travelled and open-minded person:  Being a hometown person is good, travelling around is better, being abroad gives you the best.   During the author’s time in Germany, one of the observations that is definitely noticeable in the past decade is that the world is getting much smaller. It has nothing to do with the increase of goods from Germany that can be bought in the US and vice versa, but more to do with meeting people from your college town or even your hometown. During a trip to Flensburg in 2010, the author encountered a person, whose daughter went to high school in Windom, Minnesota as an exchange student! Located 40 km northeast of Worthington, which has an exchange program with Crailsheim, as well as 110 km west of New Ulm, a predominantly German city, it would be considered unusual to have a German visit a small town of 4500 inhabitants for a full year, a third as many as the two aforementioned communities.

However, what would be a reaction of the readers when they found out that four people from an even smaller community- namely Jackson, located 30 km south of Windom- are living in Germany. And all of them have an age difference of only four years?  This is what Jason Smith, Brian Krahmer, Kristin Krahmer (née Svoboda) and Amanda Sutton (née Draine) are doing.  Since 2014, the four people have been living in Germany, and albeit they live far apart, they have one thing in common: Germany is considered home to them. In this series on Americans living in Germany, the Files’ Steve Schorr asked the four people individually about their motives behind moving to Germany and comparing life there to that of their hometown. This will be divided up into two parts due to length and content. This is part I, with part II to follow.  Before moving to the questions, a brief profile of the four people:

Jason D. Smith-  Jason has lived in Germany the longest, having resided there since 1999. He graduated from Jackson High School in 1996. After three years at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, he came to Germany as a foreign exchange student at the Friedrich-Schiller-University in Jena and since graduating in 2001, has been teaching English at various institutions in and around Jena and Erfurt, with the exception of a two-year stint in Bayreuth at the university. He’s currently pursuing his teaching license to teach English, Social Studies and History at a German high school (Gymnasium) and is expected to obtain his 1st state exam in 2016 and his 2nd by 2018. Since 2010 he is also a writer and photographer of two blogs: The Flensburg Files and The Bridgehunter’s Chronicles. With the exception of two years in Bayreuth and another two in Erfurt, Jason has been living in Jena with his wife Birgit and their seven year old daughter, Clara.

Brian and Kristin Krahmer- Brian and Kristin are the adventurous type when it comes to travelling, having lived in six different American states before moving to Germany in 2014. Kristin graduated from high school in 1996, Brian three years earlier. Married since 2000 (the same time as Jason and Birgit), the couple have done many jobs in the areas including some self-employment opportunities as carpenter, while Kristin acquired a profession as a massage therapist and Brian has 20+ years’ experience as a software developer. Since coming to Germany in 2014, they have lived in two different places in Bavaria: in Pegnitz (between Bayreuth and Nuremberg) and in their current town of Markt Rettenbach, located between Ulm and Munich near the city of Memmingen. They have a 10-year old daughter, Alexis.

Amanda (Draine) Sutton- Amanda graduated from high school, together with Jason and Kristin, in 1996 and since earned a Bachelor’s of Science in Environmental Health in 2007 and a Master’s in Radiological Health Sciences in 2009.  Both degrees were earned at Colorado State University.  After college, she spent one year working on the Hanford Site with Washington Closure Hanford as a Radiological Engineer in Washington state, followed by approximately two years working with SENES/ARCADIS as a Health Physicist out of their Denver office in Colorado before she started her family.  Her husband Andrew completed his PhD in Computer Science in 2011, also from Colorado State University.  Andrew has held post-docs in the Computer Science Departments at University of Adelaide, Colorado State University, Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena, and Hasso Plattner Institut/Universität Potsdam.  Amanda has lived in Minnesota, Illinois, Wyoming, Colorado, and Washington.  Since meeting Andrew, who grew up in New Mexico, they have also lived in Adelaide, South Australia and Jena, Germany.  They currently reside in Potsdam, Germany with their two children, Camden who will be three years old in November, and Daphne who is two months old.

PARTS I & II OF THE INTERVIEW YOU WILL FIND IN THE WEBSITE VERSION OF THE FLENSBURG FILES, WHICH YOU CAN CLICK HERE.

 

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Germany at 25: The Zuckertüte Festival

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This article is part of the series on Germany at 25: The 25 things that makes Germany, the country celebrating 25 years, special.

School time is the right time. When the children reach six or seven years of age, the time is ripe to leave the bird’s nest, known as the Kindergarten, and enter the first grade of elementary school (in German: Grundschule). There are many ways of making that transition for the children. In the United States, many schools have introduced graduation ceremonies for children leaving Kindergarten, using the structural format similar to a typical graduation ceremony in high school and college: children dressing up in gown and cap, teachers making speeches about the successes of kindergarten and the joys of entering the first grade, and lastly, children lining up to receive their diploma. This trend is becoming the norm, even though it is considered overexaggerated and more to the benefits of the parents than their own children. From my own past growing up in rural Minnesota, such a ceremony never existed and it was not necessary to have these extravaganzas, especially given the fact that Kindergarten is integrated into the school system, and the concept of a Kindergarten is different in the US than in Germany (as you can see in this article).

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Keeping this in mind, how do the children celebrate the transition into the Grundschule in Germany?  Easy peasy: children have their own festival which combines fairy tales with a concert and features a tree full of gifts. The Zuckertütenfest (translated into English as the School Cone festival), takes place at the end of the school year, and children entering the first grade at the Grundschule are treated to a cone full of sweets, picked off the cone tree (Zuckertütenbaum) when they are ripe enough for that. Legend has it that when the tree is full of cones that are fully grown and ripe, it means that the children are ready to go to school. It is unknown who was behind this festival, but records have indicated the states of Thuringia and Saxony were the origins of this festival, with Jena being the first known place to introduce it in 1817, followed by Dresden in 1820 and Leipzig in 1836. Although the concept of the school cone (or Schultüte) was only common in the eastern half of Germany during the 19th century, it eventually spread to the rest of Germany in the 1950s, and has since become a part of the new German tradition. Even Erich Kästner in his book “Als Ich ein kleiner Junge war,” (When I was a young boy), mentioned about how he received his cone- and dropped it, spilling all the contents on the floor: candies, dates, figs, and the like. His childhood days were spent in Dresden, where one can still see his place of birth as a historic site to this day. Today these cones are filled with less sweets but with more practical items, such as writing utensils, erasers, markers, calculators and even writing pads, just to name a few. Some small toys can also be included in the cone, whose standards range up to 85 cm in length- big enough to fit everything in there! 🙂

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Going back to the question, how is the festival celebrated? I had a chance to check it out at a Kindergarten in Jena, where my daughter is graduating and moving onto elementary school. Unlike graduation ceremonies, this event is informal and private. That means only the parents, siblings and close relatives of the child “graduating” are allowed to participate and watch the event. While the event varies from Kindergarten to Kindergarten in terms of structure, most of the activities take place outside, which is logical because of the Zuckertütenbaum. At the one I was at, we had a potluck dinner (where everyone brought food and/or drink to share with others) combined with the tradition of the Thuringian bratwurst. But we started off with a concert lasting 30 minutes and featuring some soloists, like my daughter and her best friend. After the ceremony, each graduating child receives a small folder with a poem and best wishes from the teacher. In my daughter’s case, as she is bilingual, the teacher tried out her school time English, which ended with “Did I get this right, Mr. Smith?” 🙂 Then it was time to pick the school cones off the tree and give them to the kids. The trees come in different shapes and sizes, like the picture below (By the way, Charlie Brown would approve this concept, as it would not kill the tree):

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Dinner, cake, teacher appreciation and entertainment usually follows the picking of the cone. As a general rule, children receive as many as over a half dozen cones prior to entering school, which usually begins in August, some through the festival and the rest through another celebration, the Schuleinführung (entry into elementary school), the largest of which comes from the parents. The size of the cones received through the Zuckertütenfest varies but are normally smaller than the big ones. In either case, the cones provide the children with enough tools and sweets to last through the first year in school- that is if the parents can get them to go sparingly on sweets and use the practical things instead. 😉

Zuckertütenfest and the cones are still common today as Kindergartens are using these festivals not as a way of graduating the children, like in the US, but as a way of saying farewell and thanks for all the years of learning together and being a family. After all, the teacher has the same group for five years, beginning at the age of one and ending when they leave to enter school at six. Unlike in school or even in college, these teachers are the most attached, as the kids rely on them for love and support while their parents are away. They are also called to duty to teach them the bare basics of friendship, fairness, working together, creativity and other key talents, which they can utilize in school. And when they are honored with a scrap book containing the pictures of the kids they taught, along with their drawings, together with other gifts that are typical of the events that happened over the years, then it is a sign that these teachers received what they deserved: honor, love, respect, and appreciation. And for the kids, they will leave the Kindergarten one by one, thanking them for what they did, yet the memories of their time there will remain for others to learn about.  This is something that graduation ceremonies from Kindergartens cannot hold true. Sometimes, less is more. And when they can learn to be creative with the fewest items, they can go a long way as they enter school, then high school and lastly beyond.

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This takes me to the end of the article on this unique festival, but not before making this quote:  It takes kids to make a difference in our lives, yet it takes the teachers to make the difference in the lives of these kids.

If the teacher gets honored for his/her work, then it is because the kids leaving for the future, with a school cone in the hand, have learned a lot from him/her, already using what was taught for future purposes. When the Grundschule teacher welcomes the kids this fall, they will be amazed at what they have learned so far and what they can achieve even further in the future.

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