So today, I will catch up on the updates – I am a couple of days behind due to a lack of wifi and an interesting travel day – so – On to Day 13, which I spent in Berlin, and had a lovely and busy day.
I started my day headed to the Brandenburg Gate, which is something of a national symbol for Germany, particularly post reunification. I have learned a lot about German history the past couple of days, and have been struck by the resilience of a country that by all accounts could have easily dissolved into oblivion following the massive restrictions post WW1 and WW2. The history of the Gate was facinating, as it was destroyed during bombardment and other battles during WWII (along with over 60% of Berlin), and had to be reconstructed. Berlin as a whole still seems to be a city repairing itself, because, unlike other places that were able to really start rebuilding in the 50’s, Berlin’s rebuilding progress never really started because of the occupation zones. The Brandenburg gate was a particularly neglected building because it was located in the “death zone” separating East and West.
Pictures at the Brandenburg Gate
The Brandenburgplatz area is something of an Embassy row, with many of the embassies for foreign contries being housed there – the US embassy being one of them. Directly behind the US embassy on the other side was the location of my next stop – the Holocaust Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. This was yet another emotional stop on my journey. I stated by wandering through the “artistic memorial” which is a field of stelae, designed by Peter Eisenman. The field of stelae consists of 2,711 stelae (which are essentially concrete blocks), of varying heights set on the ground (which is wave like). The end result is a monument that as you explore evokes emotion. It is stark, bleak and not “pretty”, much like the holocaust itself. It is a island of memory and silence in the middle of the hustle, bustle and sounds of Berlin. It is easy to get lost within the maze of stelae, and as you go deeper into the memorial, it is easy to forget you are in the middle of the city, because all you can see is concrete. The memorial is still, somber and a reflection of its own accord. As you journey to the center, the shadows lengthen , the effects of rain on the concrete look like tears, the imperfections of the concrete become a part of the journey, and for a moment you are able to have a time to reflect, to remember, and to ponder how in the world such a mass extermination could have ever occurred – how people could do such atrocious things to other living humans. I finished my visit to the memorial by visiting the subterranean information center – if you ever do it yourself make sure that you get the audio guide – admission is free – and the audio guide gives you a way to follow the exhibit, and not feel overwhelmed.
The center visit starts with a timeline of the extermination of the Jews under the Nazi regime, and what stuck with me from that timeline was the escalation in the cruelty and lack of empathy that grew as the Nazis gained power. While this exhibit covered the usual concentration camps that we are all so familiar with, they also focused on the death centers, which served no purpose other than to be a site of extermination, as well as the shooting sites where thousands were shot and thrown into pits (sometimes still alive). This comprehensive timeline put a new picture to the Holocaust, and framed it much more as individual, systematic murder – not the image of mass murder that we use to make it more sterile (I think often times to make it something we can process, actually).
After the timeline journey we are presented with 5 images of Jews murdered during the Holocaust, and brief biographies, before we enter the Room of Dimensions, which focuses on notes, diaries and letters written by those that perished, and the room is striking in composition, with lit up glass tiles presenting the information (the times line up with the stelae from above). Circling the room are the estimated numbers of victims from each European country (using the borders of 1937 as their guide).
This room was so stunningly composed that I captured the image of it, because I felt it was so striking. You can view that here.
After the Room of Dimensions I wandered into the Room of Families, and here there are 15 families who have their stories shared. These 15 families come from different areas of Europe, with very different lifestyles before the holocaust – so that we are able to see how all types of Jewish families were impacted. The theme of the stelae are continued here, as drop down blocks from the ceiling which never touch the ground.
The next room was the Room of Names, and it is a black room, featuring stelae set up as seats, where you are invited to sit and hear the names of victims and brief biographies of them (when information is available). According to the center, presenting all the names of victims in this way would take 6 years, 7 months and 27 days. They also use a projector to put the names of the person on each wall while they are reading about them, in German and English. The next room is the room of sites, which had a map that shows the geographical extent of the holocaust sights in Europe. It then focused on 8 sites consisting of Extermination Sites, Work Camps and Shooting Sites. In addition there were audio files of survivors telling about each site. The next room featured the location of commemoration sights throughout Europe.
The final stop in the center is the Voices of Survival videos and the area to collect additional information on those that perished – records from this time are incomplete at best, and in many cases as entire families perished, they are not recorded in the victims list, and this organization is attempting to resolve that. They ask each visitor if they have information to record it so that they can do proper research and add it to the database.
The Voices of Survival are haunting, and I was struck with the fact that much like our WWII veterans of the same time, we are quickly getting to a time that even the youngest of holocaust survivors will no longer exist, so the need to record their stories for the future is important, and I am happy that they have undertaken this task.
After journeying through the Memorial to the murdered Jews I decided to go for a stroll through Tiergarten Park – which is like Berlin’s central park – beautiful fields, pathways and sculptures.
In Tiergarten, there are a few other memorials, one to the Murdered Sinti and Roma (gypsies) as well as the Homosexuals persecuted under the national socialist regime. Both of these memorials were touching and very well done.
My final stop was a tour of the Reichstag building where the Bundestag (German Parliament) meets. This is another historic German Building that has only recently been reconstructed. The tour was fascinating, and the tour guide was excellent – he told the time to answer questions (even those asked by the 2 small girls in our group) and took us all over the inside of the building – which was very facinating. We ended our tour at the top and were given headsets to tour the dome, and climb to the top – where I had spectacular sunset views of Berlin. I decided to go into the terrace restaurant, and had a cool experience there, as I was able to sit and socialize with members of the Bundestag, who when they found out I was a STEM teacher, started asking me all sorts of questions – it was a delightful conversation!
This was a fun, adventure packed day, and a great Berlin experience. 🙂