Berlin, a Living Memorial

Berlin, a Living Memorial

posted in: Articles, Europe, Germany | 0

copenhagen_berlinLike a lot of the places we’d be visiting in Europe, I had been to Berlin back in 2001. I remember visiting the Brandenberg Gate, seeing the Berlin Wall, and of course what every 20 year old remembers, drinking. Also like last time, we were coming from Copenhagen by train. This time, the train actually got on a ferry where we had to get off and go on the boat deck. I definitely don’t remember that happening in 2001. We had to transfer at Hamburg and got to Berlin pretty late so we just found our Airbnb and went to bed.

Concrete slabs of the Holocaust Memorial
Concrete slabs of the Holocaust Memorial

On our first full day in Berlin, it was pretty hot out so we wanted to find some things to do indoors. We did some research and decided to visit Pratsburger Platz and the Daimler Contemporary Art Museum. The museum was really hard to find. The sign in the front was pretty well hidden by a restaurant and it was on the 4th floor of a non-descript building. The museum was pretty small and was exhibiting art from the artist Adolf Fleischmann. We only stayed a little bit and since we were in the area, we decided to check out the Holocaust Memorial. We were planning to come to the memorial tomorrow as part of a walking tour but decided to go by since we were so close. The museum is actually called the “Memorial to the Murdered Jews” of Europe and has an interesting design from American Jewish Architect Peter Eisenman. It consists of 2,711 concrete slabs or "stelae", arranged in a grid pattern on a sloping field. The slabs are 2.38 m (7 ft 10 in) long, 0.95 m (3 ft 1 in) wide and vary in height from 0.2 to 4.7 m (7.9 in to 15 ft 5.0 in). They are organized in rows, 54 of them going north–south, and 87 heading east–west at right angles but set slightly askew. Building began on April 1, 2003, and was finished on December 15, 2004. According to Eisenman's project text, the stelae are designed to produce an uneasy, confusing atmosphere, and the whole sculpture aims to represent a supposedly ordered system that has lost touch with human reason. To me, the slabs resemble concrete coffins but the actual number of slabs, 2,711, does not have any significance.

There is an information center below the concrete slabs which is free and we went down to check it out. There are a number of exhibits highlighting the lives of certain victims and survivors. There is an exhibit that has letters of concentration camp victims and it also has the number of Holocaust victims from each country. One thing I noted was that the number of victims from Denmark was really low [~120] which falls in line with the history of the Danish Jews that we learned on the walking tour of Copenhagen. The concrete blocks also extend below to the information center and out of the ceiling. The experience reminded me of the Hiroshima Atomic Bomb Museum and was pretty powerful with stories of selected families.

Holocaust Memorial Visitor Center
Holocaust Memorial Information Center

After the Holocaust Memorial, we walked by the nearby Brandenburg Gate. The gate is very beautiful and surrounded by various Embassies, hotels, and tour companies offering walking/biking tours. It was pretty much just how I remembered it from 15 years ago. The gate is very beautiful with a statue of the goddess Victoria on top of a chariot drawn by four horses (The Quadriga). We would learn more about the gate on our walking tour tomorrow but today it was very hot out so we didn’t stay long.

Diem in front of the Brandenberg Gate
Diem in front of the Brandenberg Gate

On our second fully day in Berlin, we decided to do another Sandemans walking tour. The tour started at Brandenburg Gate went over history of gate and war. Brandenburg Gate is built on the site of a former city gate that marked the start of the road from Berlin to the town of Brandenburg an der Havel.  It was commissioned by King Frederick William II of Prussia as a sign of peace and built by architect Carl Gotthard Langhans from 1788 to 1791. After, we went by the Memorial of Murdered Jews (aka Holocaust Museum) that we visited yesterday. It was a good thing we went to the Information Center yesterday because it was closed today and the tour didn’t give you time go to explore. Next we went Hitler’s bunker which is now just a parking lot of some residential apartments. There was some debate on what to do with the bunker when it was discovered during construction. The tour guide said that the German government decided to leave it as a parking lot rather than a tourist attraction because they didn’t want to make it be a place where extremists could use as a memorial or rally point. We took a break at a restaurant that was across the street from the Topologies of Terror Museum which depicts the war from the aspect of the Germans. After the break we went to Checkpoint Charlie which has been highly commercialized. It served as a symbol of the Cold War, representing the separation of East and West. Soviet and American tanks briefly faced each other at the location during the Berlin Crisis of 1961. Today, Checkpoint Charlie is more of a tourist trap, sandwiched between a KFC and McDonalds.

Left: Exterior exhibit of the Topologies of Terror Museum; Right: Checkpoint Charlie accompanied by KFC and McDonalds
Left: Exterior exhibit of the Topologies of Terror Museum; Right: Checkpoint Charlie accompanied by KFC and McDonalds

We ended the tour learning about the Stumbling Stones which are gold stones that contain the names and certain information about Holocaust victims. Over 27,000 stones are located all throughout Europe and highlight victims from those countries that lived, worked, or died at those locations to remind that the victims were humans and not abstract historial statistics . We have kept a lookout for these stones during our travels and have found many of them throughout Europe so far. After the tour we went back to the Topologies of Terror Museum. It is located at the old headquarters of the Gestapo and the SS. The museum has an exhibit outside that is below a segment of the Berlin wall that has remained and has a number of Newspaper headlines, articles, propaganda materials, and other information showing what type of information was fed to the people of Germany and East Berlin before and after the war. The new Documentation Center was officially opened on May 6, 2010 by Federal President Horst Köhler on the occasion of the 65th anniversary of the end of World War II. Inside the museum is an exhibit with a timeline of the war and the various articles and important events that occurred throughout the war.

East Side Gallery
East Side Gallery

On our third day Diem found a place, Mustafas, that was supposed to have the best Chicken Doner and pita in Berlin. I got the Chicken Doner and Diem got a Chicken Durum, which is essentially a Middle Eastern chicken burrito. Both were really tasty and a great deal at 3.20€ & 2.80€, respectively. After lunch, we went to the East Side Gallery. The East Side Gallery consists of 105 paintings by artists from all over the world, painted in 1990 on the east side of the Berlin Wall. The most famous is “The Kiss” but we actually couldn’t find it. The Kiss depicts Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev giving the East Germany President Erich Honecker what appears to be a passionate kiss on the lips. At first glance, you might think it’s a complete joke, but the image was based on an actual photograph taken in 1979 in honor of the thirtieth anniversary of the German Democratic Republic–East Germany. The East Side Gallery is the longest remaining stretch of the wall and spans about a mile. There was a special exhibit depicting the victims and ruins of the Syrian war on the interior facing portion of the wall. The pictures were enlarged and plastered on the Wall and were pretty graphic and powerful showing the devastation to not only the buildings and cities of Syria, but also the families and children living there.29420262031_2b47c99493_k

Top: photos from Documentation Center; Bottom: Wall remembering victims that died trying to cross the wall
Top: photos from Documentation Center; Bottom: Wall remembering victims that died trying to cross the wall

Next, we went to the Berlin Wall Memorial. The Memorial consists of a number of different buildings and memorials site Bernauer Strasse street. It extends along 1.4 kilometers of the former border strip. The memorial contains the last piece of Berlin Wall with the preserved grounds behind it and is thus able to convey an impression of how the border fortifications developed until the end of the 1980s. We watched a couple of different 15 minute videos summarizing the history of the wall at the Visitor Center. At the Museum building there is an observatory that shows a recreation of the actual Wall security reinforcements which include an inner wall, a signal fence, a smoothed sand section to show footprints, a watchtower, metal spikes (Stalin’s grass) hidden within the sand, and the actual Wall. Westerners called it the “death strip” because so many people died attempting to escape. The Berlin Wall Memorial is a combination of an open-air exhibit and multiple museums (Visitor Center, Documentation Center, and Chapel of Reconciliation) that are free to the public. You could easily spend a full day exploring all the grounds, exhibits, and reading about the history of the wall and the Cold War. We spent a couple of hours at the Memorial and it was a very cool and informative experience. I would highly recommend going and leaving yourself plenty of time to see all the main exhibits.

Reconstruction of Berlin Wall with "death strip" fortifications
Reconstruction of Berlin Wall with "death strip" fortifications

Afterwards, we went to Museum Island and hung out in the lawn in front of the Berlin Dome and Altes Museum. Berlin’s Museum Island is actually a UNESCO World Heritage Site and includes 5 Museums, the Pergamon, Bode, Neues, Alte Nationalgalerie, and Altes museums. It has some pretty spectacular views and architecture but there was also a lot of construction throughout the island that blocked a lot of the views of the buildings and streets. We didn’t actually go in any of the museums because we usually don’t go to museums with entrance fees to stay on budget, but exploring Museum Island is free and the exterior of the Museums are also beautiful. After, we had dinner at Gasthaus Kombach got the stuffed cabbage and potato and sausage soup. Both dishes were pretty tasty and filling so we went home to go to bed.

Reichstag Dome
Reichstag Dome

Our last full day in Berlin we scheduled breakfast at the Reichstag rooftop restaurant to visit the Dome of the Reichstag. The dome is pretty cool and the visit includes the free audioguide has some interesting information and the view is pretty nice. Security was pretty strict and you needed a reservation for the dome or the restaurant to enter. Get reservations online in advance. Dome reservations were full but the restaurant was pretty easy to get. The food at the restaurant, however, was not good. Probably should have just skipped the meal. After breakfast, we walked through the Tiergarden and the Victory statue. The Tiergarden houses the zoo and many parliamentary and governmental institutions, among others the Bundestag in the Reichstag building and the new German Chancellery. The residence of the German President, Schloss Bellevue and the Carillon are also located in the Tiergarten park. It contains several notable sculptures including the four-tiered Victory Column (Siegessäule), the Bismarck Memorial and several other memorials to prominent Prussian generals. In addition, the tree-lined pedestrian avenues emanating from the Victory Column contain several ceremonial sculptures of Prussian aristocrats enacting an 18th-century hunt.

After walking around the Tiergarden, we took a train to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. The train ride is about 45 minutes from downtown Berlin and from the train station you can a short bus ride to the entrance of the Concentration Camp. We bought the audioguide for 3 euro which had lots of information maybe too much. Some 30,000 inmates died there from exhaustion, disease, malnutrition, pneumonia, etc. due to the poor living conditions. Many were executed or died as the result of brutal medical experimentation. After the Soviets took over the camp, they held Nazi and political prisoners there. Under Soviet control, at least 12,000 prisoners had died of malnutrition and disease. It was a very moving and powerful visit. I visited the Dachau Concentration Camp back in 2001 and while this one was smaller and not as tourist friendly, it was definitely worthwhile.

Left: Sachsenhausen Memorial; Top right: sleeping quarters; Bottom right: Commemoration for the Victims of the Concentration Camp
Left: Sachsenhausen Memorial; Top right: sleeping quarters; Bottom right: Commemoration for the Victims of the Concentration Camp

The next day we grabbed a train to Amsterdam. I originally wasn’t too excited to revisit Berlin because I didn’t have that strong of feelings about my first visit there. However, I was really pleasantly surprised with how much I enjoyed Berlin this time around. Berlin is sometimes referred to as the City of Memorials and has various memorials honoring the different groups that were persecuted by the Nazis (e.g., Jews, blacks, LGBT, politicians, etc.). Walking around Berlin there are constant reminders of WWII, the Cold War, the separation of East and West, and the terrible history and effects of the wars. Most of these memorials are front and center in some of the most densely populated portions of the city which speaks to the Germans’ ability to recognize and take responsibility for their past.

While looking at the various Berlin Wall memorials and museums, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons to the current political climate in the US. The talk of building a wall to keep foreigners out really has huge consequences on both sides. We saw videos, propaganda, and speeches of hyper-nationalism that led to the rise of an extremist government and terrible acts that were done in the name of patriotism. We also saw videos of people desperately seeking to escape the tyranny of the East and the sheer joy of all Berliners with the fall of the wall. So much of the city is dedicated with reuniting East and West and remembering its own horrible history of treating people cruelly to hopefully not make that same mistake again. I write this as the U.S. General Election is only a few weeks away and I can only hope that we do not make that exact mistake that hurt so many and has taken so long to heal.

To see the full gallery of Berlin click here: Berlin, Germany

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Paul is a lawyer taking a mid-career break focused on capturing all his adventures during his yearlong honeymoon around the world.

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