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April 30, 2013

Mayday, Mayday

Filed under: Germany — Tags: , , , — furtherglory @ 5:00 pm
Dancing around the Maypole in Buchenberg, Germany

Dancing around the Maypole in Buchenberg, Germany

The term Mayday is an international radiotelephone signal word used by aircraft and ships in distress, according to the Online Dictionary. The term comes from the French term venez m’aider, meaning “Come help me.”

Mayday in Germany, and in German-American communities in the USA, also means a celebration of Spring.  According to tradition, the first person (of the opposite sex) that you see on Mayday is your true love.

The photo above shows both male and female dancers dancing around a Maypole, but it is usually young girls who dance around a pole on the first day of May in America.  This custom used to be followed religiously in German-American communities in America, but today — not so much.

Two holidays occur on May 1st in Germany, and the Germans celebrate them both. May Day has been a nationwide holiday in Germany since 1919, when the German National Assembly declared it to be a holiday to honor working men and women. It is also widely celebrated in Germany as a rite of spring, with music, dancing and maypoles.  The May Day traditional celebration goes back to the Wiccan holiday Beltane, which was a celebration of Spring.

Muttertag is the German celebration of May 1st, which features dancing around a Maypole.  Over 120 years ago, America inspired the celebration of labor on May Day.  The European Labor Day began in 1890 as a sympathy gesture for striking Americans in Chicago.  Dancing around the Maypole goes back quite a bit farther.

To dance around a Maypole, the dancers walk around a tall pole, clutching a rainbow of colored ribbons.  An outer circle of dancers moves clockwise while an inner circle dances in the opposite direction.  At the start, the dancers stretch their ribbons far away from the center, but move closer as the colors wrap around the pole.  In synch with each other, and the music, the circles then change direction and unwind themselves.

The German Maypole custom goes back to pre-Christian celebrations of spring.  Beginning with the Equinox in March and April, German tribes used to celebrate the new life and fertility of the season.  Trees received a particular reverence during these rituals.  Dancing around them became the precedent for the Maypole.

Young girls dancing around a Maypole

Young girls dancing around a Maypole

In Germany, the Maypole is left up for at least a month.  I took the photos below on a trip to Germany and a trip to Austria.

A Maypole in the town square in Linz, Austria

A Maypole in the town square in Linz, Austria

Maypole in the town square of Geseke, Germany

Maypole in the town square of Geseke, Germany

A German Jew writes a letter to his wife and mentions the liberation of Dachau

Fritz Schnaittacher, a Jew who had been living in Germany until 1933, was an intelligence officer with the U.S. Seventh Army in Germany during World War II.

Fritz Schnaittacher

Fritz Schnaittacher

You can read the full story, entitled “A German Jew in the U.S. Army Confronts Dachau” here.

In a letter to his wife in 1945, First Lieutenant Fritz Schnaittacher, an intelligence officer with the U.S. Seventh Army in Germany, wrote about how he was almost sent to Dachau 12 years ago, which would have been in 1933 when the Dachau camp was first opened.  The first prisoners, who were sent to Dachau in 1933, were taken from the Munich prison to the first German concentration camp which had just been opened.  These first prisoners had been arrested as “enemies of the state” after the Reichstag fire. What was this young German Jew doing in 1933 that he was just missed being sent to Dachau by “the skin of his teeth,” as he wrote in his letter to his wife.

This quote is from Schnaittacher’s letter to his wife:

Twelve years ago to day I came to Munich — yesterday we took it — to day we were in the heart of it — another coincidence. The past few days were some of the greatest and saddest in my life. Our regiment took Dachau or should I say liberated the human wreckage which was left there. This I consider one of the most glorious pages in the history of our regiment, not because the fighting was tough, it wasn’t, but because it finally opened the gates of one of the world’s most hellish places.

You have heard the stories over the radio — I don’t want to add much more — the most striking picture I saw was the “death train” — I say picture, no not picture, but carload and carload full of corpses, once upon a time people, who were alive, who were happy and people who had convictions or were Jews — then slowly but methodically they were killed. Death has an ugly face on these people — they were starved to death — the positions they were lying in show that they succumbed slowly — they made one move, fell, were too weak to make another move, and there are hundreds of such lifeless skeletons covered by some skin. I tried to find out the origin of this train. Some of the stories corresponded — whether this train was to leave Dachau or had just arrived is not essential — essential is that they were locked into these cattle cars without sanitation and without food. The SS had to take off in a hurry — we came too fast — it was too late to cover up their atrocities.

First prisoners arrive at Dachau concentration camp in 1933

First prisoners arrive at Dachau concentration camp in 1933

You can read about the first prisoners who were sent to Dachau, on my website here.  A few of the first prisoners who were sent to Dachau in 1933 were Jewish, but none of the first prisoners were sent there just because they were Jews; they were transferred to the first concentration camp, from the Munich jail, because of their politically activity against the state.

In reading the letter that Fritz wrote to his wife, I was struck by the fact that he wrote about the “death train” but didn’t write about what was happening to the German people in the last days of the war. I am currently reading a book entitled Germany 1945, in which the author mentions that 500,000 German civilians were killed during the Allied bombing of German cities and that 26 million Germans (one fourth of the total population) were homeless.  This number did not include the ethnic Germans, in other European countries, who were expelled from their homes and forced to go to Germany, where there was no housing available.  On top of this, the American Army officers forced German civilians out of their homes so that they could occupy them.  Fritz had no sympathy for the German civilians who were treated very badly by the Americans.

Before you say that the Germans got what they deserved because Germany started the war, read a blog post that I wrote 3 years ago about the start of World War II.