Snowballs in Berchtesgaden

by Dr. Kenneth W. Regan, 1/1/2012

Our Salt Mine Tour bus from Salzburg, Austria, lurched out of centuries-old disturbed forest into brilliant winter morning sunshine. We found ourselves in the southeast corner of Germany, in a deserted hillside parking lot overlooking the Berchtesgaden Valley. Max, our sixty-something guide, gave our thirty-odd fellow tourists a choice in a cheery voice: enjoy a friendly snowball fight on the grounds, or view a diorama of Adolf Hitler's Obersalzberg complex, whose site we had just entered. Or both---so long as only five viewed the diorama at a time. He said he would play in the snowball fight, his heart clearly there, and several children including mine ducked and weaved and let fly with him and each other.

"The locals are hoping to regain the innocence of these beautiful mountains," Max had said as we approached. "Nature has regained the hillside where the compound's buildings stood until the Allies sensibly bombed them flat to leave no possible future rallying point." All, that is, except Hitler's cinema shack, now an eatery adjoining the gift shop that had the diorama. My wife fingered through dirndl dresses she might have liked years ago, while I watched a looping video then showing Third Reich luminaries sunbathing with their paramours.

There also remains the "Eagle's Nest," now the Kehlsteinhaus Restaurant, still perched atop a nearby hill. Reachable only by steep winding tracks through five tunnels impassable in winter, perhaps the Allies therefore allowed it as a stark reminder visible throughout the valley. "Hitler only used it nine times," Max explained, while noting that the whole compound saw even more Führer face time than Berlin. "World War II, the Russian Invasion, and the Final Solution, all were planned here." This turned our planning which Mozart house to visit that afternoon into vanity. All a way to avert the black trailings of unspeakable Nazi atrocities hanging in the breezeless mountain air.

More adults, done with perusing Bavarian souvenirs and Eva Braun in swimwear, joined the laughing children whizzing white cannonades. All too soon we piled onto the bus for Berchtesgaden itself, a gorgeous Alpine village found on the wrong pages of too many history books. "Advent in Berchtesgaden" proclaimed arches gating the Old City, though it was the third day of Christmas for my true love and me. We were given 45 minutes to browse, then "be pünktlich---on time---10:45 for the salt-mine tour." What spirit, then, drew my wife to a Holzschnitzerei with wood-carved Nativity scenes still in the windows?

We had wanted a creche all through our marriage, but only echt and with special feeling, not by catalog. The prices here for faithfully painted woodcut figures were half what we'd seen outside palaces of light in Vienna. And one set occupied a hollowed-out trunk branch that stole our piety. After some minutes' retreat to a bakery to satisfy our children and decide to plunge, we returned with ten minutes left to hail the Holy Family, plus two shepherds with lambs and an angel. Each piece and the log were delicately cushioned and wrapped as the minutes counted down, our kids sent ahead to stay the time, until we apologetically trudged in with our heavy dream package at 10:49.

There are times for people to voice great remorse, but do they come when bringing a peace offering? Not at our Lutheran services---the confession comes first and the peace and offertory much later. At the peace the remorse is understood not spoken. All talk of the Nazis ceased at 10am, when the tour was given over to the town and its people and its salt mine. How do we observe the horror without engorging its perpetrators, while embracing the offerings of the descendants of their neighbors?

No stranger to peace, Max told us as we regained Salzburg of his second job curating the museum of the nearby school where the melody of "Silent Night" was written. He has installed the same connection to the snowballs in Berchtesgaden as we had in our figures, which will nestle in their tree while trees reclaim the marked hillsides. Snowball "fighting" it is---fighting is part of the observance---but the laughter is the reclaiming, as long years of growing strive to bring the peace that tries all understanding.