Get it? Brrrrr, like you’re cold, but Brrrrrlin like, you know, Berlin…
But despite the cold, today was awesome. The trip itinerary said that we would meet at breakfast from 8:30 to 9:30 to plan the day, but it was after 10 before we finally got on our way… And mine was the early group. Chris, the other professor, wanted to go to the Stasi Museum. I went with Tony and only 4 other students to the the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp just outside of the Berlin city limits. I’m really shocked that no one else wanted to come with us.
My shoes do not do well in the snow. They were wet in moments, and my feet were painfully cold. Getting to the train station from the hostel takes a little over 10 minutes at a fast clip, and we were on the trin just long enough for the snow inside my shoes to melt. After we reached the end of the line, it was still a 20 minute walk to the camp. It was less painful this time because I couldn’t feel my feet at all. Also, it’s hard to feel too sorry for yourself when you’re walking towards a concentration camp in Germany.
Sachsenhausen, due to its central location, was the primary site of administration for the entire network of concentration camps. It was open from 1933 to 1945, and then used by the Russians to hold prisoners of war.
Unfortunately, none of the museums or buildings were open. You could walk around in the grounds but you couldn’t go inside the barracks or infirmary, or see the exhibits about camp life/history/artifacts.
Still, the grounds themselves were pretty chilling. Much of the complex had been destroyed by bombings, but a few buildings remained. The foundation of one were still standing, and this included almost the whole crematorium. You could look at a key to the side and see (when looking at base of the walls that survived) which room the prisoners and victims entered, where they undressed, and where they were shot through a slot in the wall.
Also, the entire firing wall, bullet catch, gallows and adjacent crematorium were fully in tact.
I think the cold was kind of numbing, for more than my toes. That, and it’s almost too much to imagine. The enormity of the situation is more than I can get my head around. I’m going to need a while to think about that experience. It will be interesting to see Auschwitz in the spring.
Afterwards, we walked back through town to the train station. Everyone else stopped for coffee but I didn’t have the money. We stopped into a tiny tiny shop that would microwave chicken nuggets or schnitzel for you for less than €3. It was full of old men drinking enormous beers at 2 in the afternoon. It was so German.
Back on the train, a few of us (well, maybe just me…) had made a sandwich at the free breakfast buffet and wrapped it in napkins. After having been stored in my purse all day, it was actually still quite good. We split up after this. Tony wanted to go back to the hotel and read a book. I hadn’t done any prior research, but I looked at the train map and realized that our line passed several really interesting places. I decided to just stick to that route for the rest of the day. One other girl, lily, decided to join me. The others split off to go find some friends of theirs who were near the hotel.
Lily and I hopped off at the Berlin Wall Memorial and Museum. Everything here seems to be closed on Mondays, but most of it was outside anyways. All around the wall were little metal posts with information about the wall. It went on for quite a long ways, and it was really well done.
It talked about the history of the site (it cut through a cemetery), the building and rebuilding of the wall, the demolition of the houses, all of the escape attempts, and it had lots of photos of the area at different stages. It’s crazy what people would do to escape. The first few weeks, before all the houses on the border were completely bricked up, the West Berlin Fire Brigade was at the scene around the clock with nets to catch anyone who wanted to jump from the upper stories. There was even a lady who was 9 months pregnant to escape this way. She gave birth 3 days later. Some incredible tunnels were built.
Most amazingly, though, were the people who tried to flee once the walls had really been completed. Almost all of them were killed in the meters between the first and second wall. The guards had an in obstructed view of the entire area and these people obviously had no chance.
I’m really glad we stopped off there. Once again, I couldn’t feel my feet at all. We spent a good amount of time there, and when we finally got back to the train station I realized my hands were a very unnatural shade of bright purple.
The train took us to the Brandenberg Gate. It was crazy. The area was amazingly familiar from all the photos and films I’ve seen of Nazi parade. Also, there was a man who could stamp your passport! I finally got my German stamp! He had all kinds of crazy stamps and retro visas, but I just wanted a regular Germany one. Lily had hers stamped as well. It was her first ever passport stamp. Because she’s from England, she doesn’t get them when she travels within the EU. Sounds like a rip off to me.
We walked from there to the Reichstag. It was also pretty impressive and strangely familiar. The dome was closed due to all the ice, and you couldn’t go inside unless you made a reservation online 3 weeks in advance. I’m going to keep an eye on the website in case anyone cancels, but it doesn’t seem likely. Still, it was cool to see from the outside.
In the opposite direction is the Jewish Memorial (or Holocaust memorial, depending on which map you look at). It should have been very close, but we got a little turned around. After we did sort ourselves out, we got there in no time. It was awesome. Especially after having taken that class about The History of Antisemitism in Art, which also discussed post-holocaust Jewish art, it was awesome to see.
The memorial is an enormous grid of large rectangular cement blocks. They are barely elevated around the perimeter, but they get taller towards the center. As you walk into it, you realize that the ground also dips downwards in the center so they actually become incredibly tall. Before you realize it, you’re completely surrounded by enormous cement barriers. Because they’re in a grid, you can see all the way through it and other people slip in and out of sight. The design is very elegant and psychological.
Unfortunately, a group of obnoxious tourist teenagers arrived moments after we did and decided it would be fun to have a game of tag. They lost interest pretty quickly and we were left in peace, but it felt so disrespectful and insulting. This was a monument to honor 6,000,000 people who had been cruelly and systematically murdered. There are better places to shriek and play rowdy games.
After this, we headed back to the train to head to the Topography of Terror museum. It was located next door to the buildings where the Nazi headquarters were located. We weren’t exactly sure what to expect, but it turned out to be awesome. Plus, it was free. I wish we had had more time there. It was an extremely thorough account of the rise and fall of the Nazi party, with photos, documents, and detailed accounts of each country Germany invaded.
One of the most interesting parts, for me, was to see photos and read biographies of some of the highest ranking Nazi leaders. The format went something like this:
John Doe was born to a carpenter and a seamstress. He studied agriculture.
He joined the SS in 1933, and (insert long list of jobs held for Nazi party, usually pretty brutal)
He was sentenced to (death/life in prison/forced labor) but released 3 years later.”
A few died, a few committed suicide, and a few escaped prison completely. Still, it was bizarre to see how few-to-none to these men had been held accountable.
We checked out the headquarter building facades as we left. The other cool part about going to that museum, especially at the end of the day, was to see photos of the places we’d seen now in real life. Especially strange were all of the photos of the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp.
We were nearby Checkpoint Charlie, so we walked by on our way to a train that would take us straight back to the hotel. It was already 8 at this point, when the museum closed. It was darker and colder, but our blood must be getting thicker because it didn’t feel quite so bad. Checkpoint Charlie was dismally disappointing. It was like M&M world: it sounds really cool, but it’s actually just a store. Disappointing. Checkpoint C was weirdly commercial. It was surrounded by souvenir stands and carnival rides. We didn’t really stop because there was nothing to see. I was so happy we’d stopped at the far superior Berlin Wall Memorial earlier that day.
We got mixed up again trying to find our way back to the hotel, but the Germans are very nice. Everyone seemed glad to answer questions. If you even have a map out, someone will stop and offer to help.
It was nearly 10 at that point and we were trying to find dinner. I told Lilly about the awesome Thai food place from last night, and we both wanted to go there. We walked around for what felt like an hour trying to find it, and is after we had at long last found the hostel.
I knew it was less than 3 minutes away and incredibly simple to get to, but we couldn’t find it anywhere. It was on the corner of the block, of which there really should only be 4. It couldn’t be that hard to find and I felt like I was losing my mind.
We were about to walk back to the hostel and ask for directions, when Lilly realized that the totally close up place we were standing in front of was actually a Thai place… The very one we were looking for. Apparently, like all things in Berlin, it closes on Mondays. It also looks quite different when closed because of metal garage doors that pull down in front of the windows that are covered in graffiti. In addition to all that, the sign is very inconspicuous. We had walked by it over and over again without realizing.
Fortunately, we were so tired and hungry by this point that we were just slap happy. “slap happy,” by the way, is not an expression they have in England. We had seen a Vietnamese places few blocks back, so we walked to it. It was even cheaper, and I had not yet spent any money today, so I splurged a bit and had a diet coke. It was wonderful. Food has never tasted so good.
When we got back to the hostel we were totally wiped out. None of my classmates were around, but the kids in her year were all drinking in their rooms and were shocked we hadn’t made it back to the hostel until then.
Today was amazing. I don’t know what tomorrow will look like. I’m sure the day won’t be nearly as full, but Berlin has been wonderful and I’m looking forward to whatever it brings. I heard a rumor that Chris wants to sneak into a secret Soviet spy tower that has been completely shut down, so the inside is covered in cool graffiti. Should be interesting…