David McCormack: Playboy, businessman, saviour, spy: Oskar Schindler's lesser known career with German Military Intelligence 1936-40

Oskar Schindler’s name became known to millions following Liam Neeson’s brilliant 1993 on-screen performance as the larger-than-life character in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. Whilst this beautifully crafted film captured Schindler’s shrewd opportunism and supreme confidence, it did not satisfactorily explain his conversion from casual war profiteer to selfless hero.

This is entirely understandable, given that the film was based on Thomas Keneally’s book Schindler’s Ark (1982), which only briefly touched upon some of his pre-Krakow activities. Those activities included his direct involvement in espionage and undercover operations carried out by German Military intelligence (Abwehr) between 1936 and 1940.

A still from the film ‘Schindler’s List’

Given the nature of Schindler’s clandestine activities, it is hardly surprising that he remains a controversial and shadowy figure. According to Schindler’s own account, he joined Abwehr III Breslau in December 1936 after meeting the organisation’s chief, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris at a party. The unit to which he was attached principally dealt with code-breaking and radio monitoring.
Following reorganisation, his unit was redesignated as Abwehr II Breslau, tasked with carrying out espionage/counter-espionage and sabotage/counter-sabotage operations. During the fateful summer of 1938 which culminated in the Munich Crisis, he worked to provide Abwehr combat and sabotage teams with reliable maps and information on Czech troop movements and defences.

Oskar Schindler (L), Admiral Wilhelm Canaris. Head of Abwehr (R)

Schindler was a somewhat minor figure in Hitler’s plans to take over Czechoslovakia. Nevertheless, his activities did not go unnoticed by the Czech authorities. He was arrested on charges of espionage on 18 July 1938, tried and subsequently imprisoned. However, he was  released early under the terms of the Munich Agreement.
Through much of August 1939, Schindler played a more significant role in Hitler’s planned invasion of Poland. Operating with Action Commando Unit VIII around the Sillein border region in Slovakia, Schindler smuggled arms and men across the border into Poland in preparation for clandestine combat operations. Later, he participated in operations to secure the strategically important rail tunnel and tracks which ran through the Jablunkov Pass.

The railway tunnel at the Jablunkov Pass

However, Hitler’s miscalculation regarding British and French guarantees to Poland led to the operation being hastily terminated as a result of his fear of provoking a general war.  On 31 August, the carefully staged Gleiwitz Incident provided Hitler with his justification for attacking Poland. Schindler may well have had a role in procuring Polish uniforms for this SS orchestrated ruse de geurre designed to create the impression of Polish aggression along the German border. However, the evidence for his involvement is largely based on testimony from his estranged wife Emilie. As such, it needs to be treated with caution.
Following the occupation of Krakow by German forces in September 1939, Schindler moved to the city in the hope of resuming his business career. However, in reality, he never left Abwehr, as in 1940 he was sent on a mission to investigate difficulties affecting the flow of intelligence information from Turkey. It is also quite possible that his purchase of the Emalia factory was subsidised by his Abwehr controllers, who wished to use it as a front for their continued intelligence activities.

Main building, entrance to Oscar Schindler’s factory in Krakow, Poland

Working with Abwehr brought Schindler into close contact with some of the more unpleasant organs of the Nazi state. Consequently, he developed a distrust of the SS Security Service and the Secret Police, whose activities he regarded as beyond the pale. This distrust would later develop as a distaste for all aspects of Hitler’s terror state and would form the basis of the actions which led to him becoming the saviour of 1,100 Jews, who would certainly have perished without his intervention.

Unusual Place Names: Where in the World?

Unusual place names, they seem a million miles away… from the likes of Bunratty to Honningsvag, they’re the sort of destinations you’d have to grab at atlas to find out exactly where they are. And even then, it’s finding out just how far away they are can be pretty mid-boggling.

Well, the thing is, they’re probably closer than you think. We’ve put in some research and found some of Europe’s most unusual place names (and, funnily enough, we visit them on our tours too!) and have even found out just how many miles away they really are.
So, if you’re heading off on one of our tours to places you’ve not really heard of before, your unusual destination may just be on our list. Find out how far you’ll travel to get there with our fantastic new infographic.

Oberammergau 2020: The World Famous Passion Play

Oberammergau, the German town nestled in the Bavarian Alps. It’s a stunning place to visit at any time, in fact, you may have seen it for yourself on one of our tours. But as we head towards the latter end of this decade, attention turns to one thing; The Oberammergau Passion Play.

The play will be back in 2020, marking its 42nd anniversary and it’s something that, here at Leger HQ, we’re really looking forward to.
It’s without a doubt one of our most popular additions, even though it only comes along once a decade! And, this year we’ve launched an exciting selection of tours taking you to the Passion Play along with exciting excursions throughout Germany, Italy and Austria. But, if you’re new to the play, or just wanting to learn a little more about it, here’s our beginners guide to the World Famous Oberammergau Passion Play…

What is the Oberammergau Passion Play?

The Oberammergau Passion Play is a religious play of the Christian faith, depicting the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

When did it start?

It came in the middle of the 30 Years’ War – after months of suffering, and death, from the plague, the Oberammergauers swore an oath to God that, on the promise that he would spare them from the spreading plague epidemic, they would perform the “Play of the Suffering, Death and Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ”.
And, it seemed to work. In fact, there were said to be 20 people in 1000 that were dying from the bubonic plague! And, following the oath? There were no more deaths, and all the townspeople suffering, recovered. The villagers believed they had been spared and, sticking to their word, the stage was built for the inaugural show that took place in 1634.

When is it performed?

The play is performed every 10 years, the last one being in 2010 and the next to be in 2020. It runs for five months, from May to October.
In 2010 alone, there were 102 performances that took place!

Who stars in the Passion Play?

The Oberammergau Passion Play is performed solely by the residents of Oberammergau – and that’s written in law!
With so many shows, and such a large cast, it means that over half of the town’s 4000 residents come together to fill roles from actors to singers, instrumentalists and technicians.
But, it’s all worth it, as the play attracts over 500,000 guests who come from all over the world to witness the Passion Play.

How much preparation is involved?

The groundwork for each Passion Play is meticulous. In fact, the preparations for 2020 are already well underway.
The production team was chosen back in 2015, the final schedule released this year and the cast will be announced by the Spring of 2019, just in time for the male members to adhere to the village’s ‘Beard and Hair’ edict that demands that all actors must start growing their hair and beards by Ash Wednesday 2019. No shaving allowed.

What should we expect?

From sombre beginnings, the Oberammergau Passion Play has thrived and since become a Bavarian triumph, enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of people. It’s a play that the locals take great pride in, so you can be sure that your experience will be the finest.
From the play itself, delivering powerful performances, inspiring spoken texts and incredible music, there’s a leisurely 3 hour meal break during the play that allows you to enjoy a host of Bavarian treats from bratwurst to steins of beer. Plus, Oberammergau itself offers a stunning back drop to this open air experience, not to be missed.

Take a look at our Oberammergau packages and book today to secure your place on this globally popular experience.

David McCormack : Who is Anne Frank?

This month marks the 72nd anniversary of the relief of Bergen-Belsen where more than 50,000 people perished through wilful neglect, including the young diarist, Anne Frank

Anne Frank’s posthumously published diary first appeared in print in 1947. Since then, it has become an international best seller, instantly recognisable to millions. Less recognisable, indeed largely unknown, is the posthumously published (1979) wartime diary of Etty Hillesum (An Interrupted Life), a young Dutch woman who was murdered in Auschwitz in November 1943.
Hillesum’s remarkable diary shares the same literary qualities as that of Anne Frank, which is hardly surprising as both aspired to be professional writers. Arguably, it is Anne Frank’s far more complex afterlife which has resulted in her much greater posthumous success and reinvention as a symbol of hope and forgiveness.

Mari Andriessen’s bronze statue of Anne Frank was conceived in 1975 and has stood on the Square of the Westerkerk since 1977

The reinvention of Anne Frank began with the publication of her diary in the United States in 1952. To make what Anne herself initially referred to as ‘the unbosomings of a thirteen-year-old schoolgirl’ more attractive to a wider (non Jewish) audience, the diary underwent a process of Americanisation, bowdlerisation and sentimentalisation.
This process extended even further with the dramatisation of the Diary of Anne Frank on Broadway in 1955 and the release of the Hollywood film (adapted from the stage production) four years later. Whilst both the play and the film were critical successes, neither captured the true essence of who Anne Frank really was.
Neither Susan Strasberg on stage, nor Millie Perkins on screen came close to capturing the mercurial and precocious young woman whose words have fascinated and inspired so many. Instead of highlighting her particular qualities, the version of Anne Frank presented to the world was a universal figure, designed above all to appeal to American youth.

Auschwitz-Birkenau. Here, after a three day journey from Westerbork, Anne and the other seven inhabitants of the secret annex were selected for labour.

This distorted, reduced, infantilised and decontextualised figure was even furnished with a happy ending. In true Broadway and Hollywood style, the adaptations of her story conclude with those lines in her diary about believing that people were good at heart.
However, we know that in reality, there was no happy ending. As such, the decontextualising of her good-at-heart passage represents the literary equivalent of plucking a rose from a bed of thorns. The impact of that decontextualised passage has nonetheless been enormous, as from it, she has come to be recognised as a universal symbol of hope and forgiveness.
In recent years, the story of Anne Frank has been subject to literary interpretations, or re-imaginings, most notably Philip Roth’s novel The Ghost Writer (1979) and Sharon Dogar’s Annexed (2010).

The symbolic grave marker for Anne Frank and her sister Margot at Bergen-Belsen

Whilst both are written with a degree of sensitivity, neither help us to understand the true story, that of a life of great promise cut tragically short in the most terrible of circumstances.
For me, as a guide, it is important to distinguish between the crafted image of Anne Frank and the real person. Therefore, on The Holocaust Remembered tour, we take in the locations which serve to inform us about her real life and the circumstances of her death.
In a sense, Anne Frank lives on through her diary. However, we know that she isn’t alive, as this ordinary, yet extraordinary young woman was buried in a mass grave in Bergen-Belsen in late February 1945. That is what makes her story so unbearable and yet so fascinating. Furthermore, it is what makes this tour such an emotional, yet rewarding experience.

Anne Frank and the other seven inhabitants of the secret annex were sent on the very last transport from Westerbork to Auschwitz in September 1944

Belgium: Beauty Nestled Between France, Germany and the Netherlands.

With Easter just around the corner, we decided that we’d like to dedicate some time to acknowledge one of Europe’s sweetest countries, and no, we don’t just mean because of its small size…

If you’re looking forward to tucking into some Easter eggs this weekend, you’ll certainly be intrigued by the fact that Belgium produces a whopping 220,000 tonnes of chocolate per year! But that’s not all that this wonderful country has to offer, from canal side cities, to beautiful beers, almighty Christmas markets and coastal treasures, you’ll certainly not be bored in Belgium.
Dig into our blog, and see why Belgium should not be overlooked when planning your next visit to Europe.

Food glorious food!

Belgium is renowned for its famous variety of delicious delicacies, from the obvious traditional chocolates to deep-fried frites, whilst in Belgium, be sure to indulge in some tasty treats…
As we all know, Belgium is celebrated for its chocolate. There are over 2000 chocolatiers in the country, which is also home to famous brands such as Côte d’Or and Belvas, and Brussels airport is the largest chocolate selling point in the world.
The delicacy has been associated with the country since the 17th century and since then the industry has remained rife. So, as you saunter the streets in Belgium, ensure you pay a visit to a traditional chocolate shop, for a taste sensation you’ll never forget!

Chocolate is not the only sweet treat that the country can claim though, it is also home to the wonderful Belgian waffle. There are two types of Belgium waffle, the Brussels and the Liege. The Brussels waffle is rectangular and bigger than the Liege.
They are also crispy on the outside and light and airy on the inside, and traditionally served topped with whipped cream and strawberries. The Liege waffle is more oval shaped, they are softer, doughier, a lot more flavourful and sweeter, meaning that they are often served without toppings. We’d definitely recommend trying both types whilst in Belgium!

And, if you’re more of a savoury person, you certainly need to ensure that you indulge in some frites. Although the French claim to have invented french fries, the delicious delicacy can actually be traced back to Belgium. It is rumoured that the potato based delights inherited the name the french fries during WW1, when American soldiers, thinking they were in France, called them french fries instead of fried potatoes.

So, if you’ve had a few too many Belgian beers, or you need something to keep you going as you explore the many wonderful streets of the Belgian cities, frites are certainly the way to go!

But where can we find all these tasty treats, you ask?

Well, Belgium is also home to some pretty amazing cities. From the fashion capital of Antwerp, to the canal side city of Bruges, the seaside resort of Ostend and the hidden gem that is Ghent… all waiting to be explored.
Antwerp, one of Belgium’s ‘coolest’ cities, has become increasingly popular with tourists over the past few years, and it’s not hard to see why… Home to Europe’s second largest port and regarded as the world’s diamond capital, Antwerp boasts a lively shopping scene, classic architecture and a host of trendy cafes and coffee shops, making Belgium’s second largest city the place to be.

Belgium’s most underrated city is quite possibly glorious Ghent. This hidden gem is a marvel to behold. Small and cosy, the University City is full of spectacular sights, marvellous museums, and like Bruges, pretty canal side architecture. It’s walkable and the city’s cobbled streets are super easy to get around.
Also, as Ghent is not yet as popular as its neighbouring Bruges and Antwerp, the town is not full of tourists, giving it a calm and welcoming feel and allowing you to take in the city’s sights at your own pace… But hurry, before everyone realises just how amazing Ghent is, which we doubt will be long.

Ostend, the ‘Queen of Belgium’s seaside resorts’, is definitely on our list of places you must visit. The coastal city features five and a half miles of sandy beaches, plus a fantastic promenade lined with shops, bars and restaurants which serve spectacular seafood, and many museums that must be explored.
Last, but certainly not least, we have to mention the Beautiful Bruges, the golden child of Belgian tourism. Bruges is a truly beautiful city and has been popular with tourists for many years. Being the focal point of the hit movie ‘In Bruges’ and being one of the world’s best preserved medieval cities certainly helped the canal side city earn its status. But with so much to see, from the Belfry to the Beer Wall, Basilica of Holy Blood to pretty canals, and with an all-round amazing atmosphere, we’re not surprised that Bruges is so popular.

Belgian Beer & Spirits

With over 180 breweries in the country, producing over a thousand different types of beer, it’s certainly safe to say that Belgium is a haven for those with a taste for the beverage.
There’s something for everyone, with a great diversity of flavours from sweet to fruity, to bitter or spicy. And, as an added novelty, almost every beer is served in its own unique glass, which is said to bring out the exclusive flavours and tastes of the different beers, making drinking Belgian beer an experience as well as a taste sensation.

The beer glasses also make for a brilliant souvenir and can be bought from almost any gift shop in the country. One of the most distinctive glasses is that of the Kwak beer, shaped like a vase, it has a rounded bottom, meaning it can’t stand without its unique wooden holder – make sure you order one and check it out whilst in the country.
Possibly the most popular types of beers produced in Belgium are the Trappist beers, and there are only eleven brewers in the world that can claim this prized label, six of which are located in Belgium. To be able to claim to be a Trappist beer, the beer must be produced by Trappist monks, in a Trappist monastery and it is a century’s old tradition. There are many different types, but the Orval, Westvleteren 12 and the Westmalle Dubbel are some of the favourites.
Not only do the beers range in flavours, the way in which they are produced, and the vessel in which they are served, but they also range from a low alcoholic percentage to a whopping 11-12%, so be careful not to have too much of the stronger stuff, but do ensure you enjoy a tipple or two of the amber nectar…

As well as beer, Belgium is also famous for Genever. Pronounced ‘Juh-nee-ver”, Genever is a flavoured spirit, which is often referred to as the ‘grandfather of gin’, as it is a juniper flavoured drink. It has been Belgium’s traditional spirit for over 500 years and not a lot of people know about it, so be sure to give it a try when you visit this beautiful country

Christmas Markets

Finally, how could we forget the festive markets? From the month of November, right through to the New Year, the cities of Belgium are transformed into fairy tale market places.
Pretty lights, festive decorations, Christmas trees and even ice rinks line the streets, as visitors flock from near and far to do their Christmas shopping. Browse the many stalls, all selling a wonderful array of traditional gifts, whilst you Indulge in some tasty treats from the many street food stalls, enjoy a Belgian waffle washed down with a warm hot chocolate, or enjoy a tipple of two of mulled wine.

Whilst Bruges, Lille and Ypres etc., all host some amazingly magical markets, Brussels Christmas market certainly is a show stopper. Not only does Brussels house fascinating monuments and amazing architecture, it really does have one of the best Christmas markets in Europe. With over 200 market stalls spanning from the Grand Place, the capital city is brought to life with twinkling lights, wonderful aromas and gorgeous garlands. A Ferris wheel allows you to see the markets from above, and a huge ice rink provides fun for all the family.
If you’re a fan of the Christmas spirit and you want a change from the busy shopping malls this holiday season, take a look at our Belgian Christmas Markets.
So, as you can see Belgium is certainly not boring, but don’t just take our word for it. Head over to our website and take a look at the tours we have on offer to Belgium, one of Europe’s sweetest countries.