From the time I first thought about wanting to travel abroad, I wanted to go to Berlin. Of course my problem has always been that because of Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories, I wanted to visit 1920-30’s Berlin. Obviously, time travel isn’t possible– but Isherwood’s vivid portrait of the decadent cabaret and underground scene have always spoken to me.
I was more than content to have this opportunity to get a glimpse of this captivating city– with, or without the dark undertones that have marked its history. Even, if it meant six more hours of bus travel to do it.
We started our day by getting on a bus at the port in Warnemunde, Germany for our three hour ride to Berlin. The trip was marked by the beautiful countryside and farmland, a brief bathroom stop and hundreds of wind turbines producing green energy. I think I managed to get in a short nap and I was all set for our tour, Echoes of the Past: Jewish Heritage.
Of the three different tours of Berlin, we thought this one would be the most interesting, considering it would also compliment our visit to Stutthof the previous day. I was also hoping to gain a clearer picture of the current German perspective of World War II.
When we reached Berlin, we stopped to meet our tour guide and he took us to the Reichstag Building first. The Reichstag is the home of the German Parliament. A monstrous building built in the late 1800s, it mysteriously caught fire in 1933 , the same year power was given over to the Nazi party there. Damaged, it was mostly used for military purposes during the war and was a central target of the Red Army during the Battle of Berlin in 1945 for symbolic reasons.
It sat for years in disrepair, was almost torn down and served a variety of uses before being fully renovated in the late 1990s when the parliament returned to its former home.
Then we proceeded to the Brandenburg Gate. One of the most known landmarks in Germany, it was constructed in the 18th century and is considered an important symbol of Germany. It stands at the west center of Berlin.
While the Berlin Wall stood, the gate was isolated and inaccessible. So when the wall fell in 1989, there was much celebration and focus surrounding the site.
The rest of our morning was spent at the Jewish Museum, Berlin. The museum is housed in two buildings and is only accessible by an underground passage from the old Berlin Museum. Designed by architect, Daniel Libeskind, the museum zig-zags though spaces, including vast voids, housing permanent and special exhibitions of German-Jewish history. There are three particularly large spaces, representing the Holocaust, that are meant to be experienced.
The first space we visited was the Garden of Exile which attempts “to completely disorient the visitor. It represents a shipwreck of history.” (Daniel Libeskind, 1999) When you first look at it up close, and as you start to walk through it, it appears to be very straight and vertical– but you soon find yourself stumbling, almost dizzy and disoriented through the maze. From the outside of the museum, as we were leaving, we could see the extreme angle and tilt of the garden in comparison to the level ground that created this feeling.
Then we went in the dark, chilling Holocaust Tower. It is a 79 foot high, bare concrete tower with only a small shaft of light entering through the roof.
There is a metal ladder on one wall, far above your head. Unreachable. It appears to go to the top– a possible escape… but it doesn’t quite reach the blackness of the ceiling.
The feeling of the space is cold, dark isolation, with no way out.
The third space was the only area of the Libeskind ‘void’ that could be entered. Shalekhet- Fallen Leaves designed by artist, Menashe Kadishman, consists of 10,000 faces punched out of steel. They are scatter on the floor of the “Memory Void” and visitors are encouraged to walk on them.
The artist intended them to not only represent the victims of the Holocaust (Shoah) but dedicated them to all victims of war and violence.
Through the main museum, you had to go to the top to enter the exhibition rooms. Then like a maze, you walked through Jewish history, with only one way out as you made your way to the bottom of the museum.
Michael and I explored most of the museum on our own, leaving the group behind so we could go at our own pace.
We had lunch in the courtyard of the museum and a short break to wander down the street before the tour continued.
Next, we visited the Holocaust Memorial named, The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. It was designed by Peter Eisenman who described its design as to produce feeling of uneasy confusion and represents an “ordered system that has lost touch with human reason”. It consists of 2,711 concrete slabs of varying heights, on a grid pattern of unlevel ground.
The English pamphlet, though, states that there is no intended symbolism.
Our tour guide said that he believed the intention behind the design was to allow visitors to envision their own meaning based on what experiences, or desired meanings they intended to gather from visiting the memorial. Below the memorial, underground, is a vault with all the known names of the Jewish Holocaust victims.
The first thing I saw when we approached, was a large cemetery. The outer stelae (slabs) are lower to the ground and as you walk through the memorial, you become engulfed, with the stelae towering over you in height. I couldn’t help but notice its similarity to the Garden of Exile at the Jewish Museum.
A big controversy arose over the memorial because it only recognized the Jewish victims, leading to memorials for other war victims being erected throughout Berlin.
On the bus, we went past Checkpoint Charlie but didn’t stop– which upset me because it was listed in the tour description. Our tour guide said he doesn’t stop there because it is “100% made in China.” The ‘checkpoint’ is not the original, it is a fabrication, standing on the original site. He considers it nothing more than an overcrowded tourist-trap. (It is surrounded by dozens of souvenir stands.)
Our next to last stop in Berlin, held two important exhibits. One of the few standing sections of the Berlin Wall and below and beside it, an indoor/outdoor exhibit, Topography of Terror.
Topographie des Terrors stands on the site where three buildings used as headquarters by the SS and Gestapo once stood. The buildings were largely destroyed in 1945 by allied bombing and the rest demolished after the war. Only part of the foundations remain. Against those foundations, stands the outdoor exhibit which focuses on the events of the year 1933 when the Nazi regime came into full power.
It’s a great exhibit and I’m really glad I got to see it. I found it really powerful and moving, especially having been to the concentration camp the day before. It was like taking a step backwards and seeing where (and how) it all began.
The Berlin Wall. As an average person, of my age, witnessing the changing world history– The the fall of communism, the tearing down of the wall, the reunification of East and West Berlin– it was an important moment in my life. The images from the original media coverage are engrained in my mind.
I remember talking to a friend, shortly there after, who was in Germany with a touring show at the time, who was lucky enough to be there as it happened. I remember how jealous I was that they were present at that important moment in history.
The wall itself, is not that threatening. It’s a very thin concrete wall. It is the symbolism of what it represented and how it affected so many lives that’s important.
Our tour guide recounted his experience when the wall came down: Friends were calling him in the middle of the night but he didn’t believe them. Finally he heard the reactions of people in the street and realized it must be true. An aunt of his that lived on the other side (I don’t remember who he said lived in East and West Berlin), showed up at his door the next morning, suitcases in hand. She brought with her, all her important belongings because she was afraid the freedom to cross the line wouldn’t last and she would be separated from them again. They had been separated for years.
So I was finally here. I was staring at this insignificantly simple structure that represented so much heartache and political control of people for so long. I was finally able to link my own personal recollections– my history– in this very spot, which was a very important moment in time for me.
I could go on a tangent here about the evils of war, political control and the horrific events that have ruined so many lives of average people (Look at what’s happening in Egypt and Syria today.) But I won’t.
I was content. No, exhilarated to be here and see this first hand.
It started to pour just as it was time to get back on the bus. We had to run through the rain to keep from getting totally drenched. I suddenly realized, though we’d seen a lot, I was a little disappointed with our visit to Berlin.
We still had one more stop before heading back to the ship– and then I looked out the window and we were suddenly driving through the shopping district. There’s no other way to put it, it was simply amazing! Blocks and blocks of tree lined streets shading nearly every designer shop you could possible think of– it was a shopping mecca. Beautiful!
It made me want to go back before we’d even left.
Our last stop in Berlin was the Schloss Charlottenburg (Palace). We didn’t have much time here except to walk around the front courtyard and statue of Friedrich Wilhelm I. It was built at the end of the 17th century and later expanded. I wish we’d had time to tour the inside and the incredible gardens on the other side of this massive palace.
I guess I’ll have to put that on my list for things to see the next time I’m in Berlin.
I’ll be back.