The Cafe/Bar on Wittenbergplatz seemed a logical place for a drink and a spot of people watching in Berlin, in the autumn of 2002.
First of all, it was located on a lovely square, and the warm October weather, allowed for Al fresco dining and drinking.
But secondly, and most importantly, for a rugby league tragic, the square bore a famous name.
John Wittenberg was one of the finest forwards to wear the green and gold of Australia, playing 10 Tests between 1966 and 1970, and famously sitting out the 1967 season to get around punitive transfer fee rules which prevented him from signing with St George in Sydney.
Originally from Kingaroy, in the South Burnett Region of Queensland, Wittenberg was first chosen for Queensland from Theodore, in Central Queensland, in 1966.
German names like Wittenberg are common in Queensland, particularly in the Lockyer Valley, to Brisbane’s west, and on the Darling Downs around Toowoomba. Brothers, Greg and Lew Platz grew up at Clifton on the Darling Downs, and played for Australia in the 1970s.
Anthony Siebold, the current coach of the Brisbane Broncos, has German heritage, and, in fact, represented Germany in rugby league, while under contract to Celtic Crusaders in Wales.
The first Germans to make their mark in Queensland were Lutheran missionaries, who established a settlement, at what is now the northern Brisbane suburb of Nundah.
My wife, Marie and I were in Berlin in 2002, as part of a six-week journey through Europe, finishing with an English leg. The tour had started in Amsterdam on October 9, and by the time we reached Berlin on October 15, we had stayed in Volendam, Hamburg and Copenhagen for two nights each (see ‘European Odyssey Tour’ and ‘Danish Lads on Song’, on this website).
I was the tour leader, of what was promoted as my fourth Kangaroo Supporters’ Trip. I had taken large groups (33 and 44 respectively) to Britain and Europe in 1990 and 1994, to follow our national rugby league side, and another trip was planned for 1998. It went ahead, with 31 people, even though there was no ‘Roo tour, with the cycle of international rugby league turned on its head by the Super League War.
‘Never mind’, everyone said. ‘Let’s go anyway’.
The sentiment was the same looking ahead to 2002, but then terrorist attacks on the USA on September 11, 2001, dampened the enthusiasm of many would-be travellers, and I was lucky to get any takers at all.
Ultimately my tour went ahead, with 15 people, including my wife and I.
After the ferry trip from Denmark to Rostock in Germany, we had a lakeside lunch stop, where I had a lovely chat with a local councillor, Katherine Schubert, and her dog ‘Lucky’. (Kevin and Ian Schubert – no relation – were both Australian rugby league reps).
The old ‘East Germany’ still looked run down, and the air seemed to ‘hang heavy’. All in the imagination, I know.
My wife fell in love with Berlin, walking through Tiergarten, beside the River Spree, the morning after we checked into our hotel, and then a coach tour of the city cemented her affection for the place. All I could think about, was what it must have been like in the days after Germany’s surrender, in 1945.
That afternoon, our driver, Marc Kollwelter, from Luxembourg, took us to Potsdam and Sanssouci, the latter a magnificent palace, the former summer residence of Friedrich the Great.
Back in Berlin, we enjoyed beer from steins at Radke’s Guest House, and then opted for a ‘traditional’ German restaurant – ‘Risachen’ – for dinner. I had veal kidneys (which I think is traditional), while Marie had snails (definitely not traditional). Marie and I, and fellow tour group members, Ray and Val Ebert, from Dayboro (Ebert is a German name) finished the day, in a bar, watching a soccer international between Germany and the Faroe Islands, with Germany winning 2-1. That’s a bit like the Socceroos beating the Solomons 2-1.
The following day was left to explore Berlin at leisure, and the ladies opted for the KaWeDe, a 60,000 square metre shopping emporium, the German equivalent of Harrods in London. I was brave enough to venture inside, and loved the food hall and the bar nearby, where I enjoyed a Czech beer, while watching pigeons fly by, in formation. It was almost as if they were showing off.
On Friday, October 18 our lunch stop was Dresden, the capital of Saxony, on the Elbe River, a city almost completely destroyed by Allied bombing in World War II. The city was so badly damaged it was suggested the best approach might be to level the site. But after the war a compromise was reached by rebuilding the Zwinger, the royal palace, and Baroque buildings around it.
Our next stay was to be in the Czech capital, Prague. More on this site, at a later date.
Footnote: John Wittenberg’s son, Jeff played at the top level for St George and South Queensland Crushers in Australia, as well as Bradford, Huddersfield and Batley in England. I first saw him play in a schoolboy match, for Wynnum High, in a curtain raiser to a Broncos v South Sydney match in Bathurst, in 1990. In 1975, the year I played for Wingham Tigers in the Group 3 competition in New South Wales, John Wittenberg played for Second Division, Comboyne, but was persuaded to step up to the first division with Wauchope, later in the year, and they went on to win the premiership. I played against Wauchope twice, but Wittenberg didn’t play in either match.
1 John Wittenberg meets Queensland Governor, Sir Alan Mansfield, ahead of the First Test against Great Britain at Lang Park in 1970. Captain Graeme Langlands is making the introduction
2 John Wittenberg tackles British prop, Cliff Watson at the SCG in 1970
3 Steve Ricketts at Sanssouci
4 Hats off to the ladies in Berlin’s famous KaWeDe store – (from left) Elizabeth Pearce, Heather Munro and Elaine Smart.