Thursday, April 19, 2012

Happy Birthday Mein Fuhrer

Tomorrow is Adolf Hitler's birthday, so I thought I'd tell you about my first and my last trip to Germany.

But first some background.

My father was a belligerent Jew. He would take umbrage at the slightest hint of antisemitism. Though hardly religious or physically intimidating, he would relish the opportunity to put on the gloves and stand up for the Tribe. I think growing up in the hard scrabble South Bronx and spending a year in an Army jail (I'll tell that story a different time) did that to him.

He was also around when the newspapers bore witness to the atrocities of the Holocaust.

Naturally he directed all that anger and turmoil towards Germans or Germany. We didn't drive cars built in the Fatherland. We didn't watch Hogan's Heroes. We didn't even have Bayer Aspirin in the house. (Headaches were for pussies anyway.)

So you can imagine my trepidation when, in April 2001, I was hired to be the Creative Director of the local Kastner & Partners office being assembled in Santa Monica. Kastner & Partners is the agency of record for Red Bull, a chemical-laden stimulant that is brewed in Austria. Before starting the gig, I was asked to fly to Frankfurt, and later Salzberg, to meet the client.

The 13-hour non-stop flight to Frankfurt was followed by a 10-hour day at the office meeting my new Aryan colleagues. To stay awake and maintain a cheerful disposition, I chugged Red Bulls all day long. At about 10 PM, we were finally dropped off at our "hotel."

But it wasn't an international Hyatt. Or a Hilton. My new boss thought it would be charming if we stayed at the Schlosshotel Kronberg, a Dracula-like castle that was built in 1893 for Empress Victoria Friedrich.

I was escorted up to the 5th floor (that's right, a 5 story castle) and shown my tiny room that for some reason reminded me of Rapunzel.

This is when things started getting ugly.

For the first time in my life I was experiencing jet lag. Not helped in the least by the consumption of three Red Bulls. That unpleasant insomnia was turbocharged by the gut feeling I had made a bad career decision. Not to mention the fact that I was half a world away from my 3 and 4 year old daughters. I was getting claustrophobic. And this was all happening in a country, where a little more than 50 years ago, my ancestors were being dragged from their homes and gassed in ovens.

Even as I write this I feel my skin tingling. I didn't know it, but I was having a full blown panic attack. Something I had never experienced before.

I tried to calm myself by turning on the TV. That did not help as all the programming was in German. And try as I might, every piece of dialogue seemed to contain the phrase, "Achtung Juden."

So I left my room and walked the hallways of this majestic castle. That didn't help much either. As the hotel's curator had lined the hallways with statues and paintings that celebrated the rich Teutonic past.

Lots of skulls, knives and medieval torture devices. This did little to dissuade of my perception of Germans as dark, militaristic and given to the taste of blood. Particularly of the Hebraic variety. 

Finally, I went down to the hotel bar, hoping to bourbonize myself to sleep. But sour mash is no match for Taurine, one of the 131 stimulants in Red Bull. Besides, it's difficult to nod off when you're convinced a pack of Bavarian wolves is about to burst through the door for its midnight feeding.

So after a night of cold sweats and no sleep, I was onto Day Two of more client meetings. Naturally, I had trouble keeping my hungover eyes open. Fortunately, there was an endless supply of energy drinks to keep me going.

The second night was a horrific repeat of the first. The next morning, following 54 hours of being awake, I followed my body's lead and aborted the trip. And the job. (Which in retrospect was the right decision.)

I remember collapsing at the American Airline's Admiralty Club and waking up on the plane hours later sitting in first class. A chatty Japanese woman was seated next to me. She started telling me all about her vacation and her moving experience at Dachau.

She gushed about the visit and said, "It's a magnificent museum. You really have to go there and feel it firsthand."

Yeah, I thought, that's probably not going to happen.

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