Blogging our way through Eastern Europe
Wow. What a day. My feet want to fall off and it’s only day 2. After getting no sleep and powering through the jetlag, our day began with a nice breakfast at our hostel. The Nutella and waffles were all the rage.
We then headed to the former Nazi square in Berlin. Once we arrived, we met out lovely guide Aria, a good friend of Ms. Freeman, and her toy poodle Lulu. It was fascinating to hear about what it was like to discuss the Nazi’s in public as a German. Here we got to take a look at some of the places where Nazi buildings once stood.
My personal favorite had to be be how on the grounds of the hotel where Hitler lived was replaced with a weird looking build built by the communist. And to our surprise, this building is now the North Korea embassy. It was so weird seeing the flag of North Korea flying in Berlin. We then got to check out the location of the former Ministry of Propaganda for the Nazis, run by Joseph Goebblels. Aria told us about just how vital Nazi propaganda was for the Nazi war machine, and also some of the methods they used to spread propaganda and get the support of the German people for the war.
While we were walking around, Aria pointed out to us all the bullet holes in the older buildings and how some of them were patched. It was so interesting to try and imagine the city as a war zone, and see its lasting effects in person.
Another stop our tour was former headquarters for the SS and the SA as well as the Gestapo. Aria explained how the groups distinguished themselves as well as how Hitler’s use for each changed over time.
One of my absolute favorite spots for the day was Checkpoint Charlie. Checkpoint Charlie was extremely important in the grand scheme of postwar history because it was the only point in the world where the United States and the Soviet Union shared a border during the Cold War. After the Cold War reaches its end, the checkpoint was destroyed with the wall. It’s fate is quite comical, as now it sites as a tourist trap, complete with fake guards, a fake checkpoint hut, fake signs, and to top it all off, the American side had a McDonald’s, KFC, and Starbucks al directly on top. We also got exposed to a wonderful slice of German tourism, where we got to see a German pickpocket at work, but thankfully Aria had seen him before and warned us to steer clear.
Our final destination was the same as Nazi Germany’s: Hitler’s bunker. We got to stand right above Hitler’s bunker, which now lives in a lovely apartment complex built by the Soviets. The entire tour was really intriguing and showed how so much Nazi history was hiding all around downtown Berlin.
After the walking tour with Arja, we all had lunch at the tremendous, phenomenal food court at the Mall of Berlin! I gorged on some really good falafels, then went shopping afterwards (I got you a souvenir, mom!!!)
We then proceeded to the Pergamon Museum, an art museum housing monumental buildings such as the Pergamon Alter and the Istar Gate of Babylon. It was so incredible, and it felt like I was really in ancient Greece!!
After exploring the wonders of this museum, we then proceeded to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, where we split into two groups and where we had a tour and learned about the significance of the design of the memorial. Then, we briefly visited the documentation center and read testimonies from survivors, along with stories about families who experienced the Holocaust. Unfortunately, we did not spend much time there (v sad) but it was an incredible, but saddening experience.
After our busy morning and even busier afternoon (as John and Mindy blogged about) we had a jam packed evening. Our group of 53 split into two groups as we prepared to visit the African Quarter of Berlin.
We met with two leaders of a non-governmental organization here in Berlin that strives to brung attention to the lives of Afro-Germans and the history of colonialism. Some of their projects include changing street names from those of perpetrators of German colonialism and the genocide of the Nama and Herero in Namibia, to the names of powerful Afro-German figures.
One example I found incredibly interesting was the street name of a man named for Dr. Carl Peters. Carl Peters was a German stationed in Tanzania who abused the Africans who he enslaved and encountered in the German colony. During the Nazi era, the Nazis erected a memorial in his honor to stand in Germany as a symbol of their “race theory”. The memorial still stands today. The street name, however, has been changed to Dr. HANS peters street instead of carl peters, as hans peters was not a perpetrator of genocide and colonialism. Slick move...
Currently the NGO is working to change the name to one of an african woman and man who fought and stood against the germans during their colonial reign in Africa. The work this organization is doing really struck me. Our tour guide, Christian, said that most German students barely learn about German colonialism and the genocide of the Nama and Herero people in Namibia. Most students and even most adult Germans know little to absolutely nothing about these parts of their history. Imagine that. Not even knowing about an entire continent your country abused and exploited. The work these two men (our tour guides) do also faces a lot of backlash. People simply don’t want street names changed because they either 1) say it is too far back in their history to matter or 2) have racist attitudes in general.
What really struck me at the end of our tour was that a train station and main street and Berlin bear the name of a racial slur used against afro-germans and migrants. Also, a German hotel displays a racist depiction of a black person on their hotel sign. Honestly, living in the United States I thought society had progressed past this point. Evidently, I was very very wrong.
We were extremely lucky that we were the first Eastern Europe group to visit the African Quarter in this manner and learn about what this organization is doing. It is undeniably important. Exposure and recognition is what leads to education and acceptance.
Finally, after our tour of the African Quarter we went to dinner in a neighborhood around our hotel. I stopped for pasta and a Fanta (my favorite European drink) to fuel up for the night. Finally, we took the U Bahn back to our hotel and settled in for another awesome day tomorrow!
Gutentag everyone! We started our super long day today in Munich when we landed at the airport at 9:15 am. Yikes! Some unidentifed sources cough cough Charlie cough cough decided to eat sausages at the equivalent of 4am Boston time... quite interesting. Next we got on our flight to Berlin and finally got a whiff of the fresh foreign air when we got outside.
This is the first time I have ever been outside of the country so it was quite an exhilarating experience! It was really sunny and beautiful and warm, completely unlike the Boston weather right now (sorry to shove it in :)).
We hopped on a bus and our first stop was to Gleis 17 (Track 17), a train station track in the western Berlin neighborhood of Grünewald. There was a memorial there for all the Jewish people that got put onto trains from here going to different concentration camps and ghettos, including Auschwitz, Krakow, and Riga. The memorial went along the tracks and identified the date these trains departed from the station, number of people, and their destination. I found it really interesting when Ms. Freeman pointed out that there were houses RIGHT next to this station, emphasizing the possibility that these people must’ve had an idea of what was going on since nothing about this operation was very camouflaged. We also ran into a tour guide that pinpointed how her grandfather was actually on one of these specific trains and was later killed. I found it incredible that she knew such specifics about her grandfather since Germans kept such tight records, which makes it all the more strange that there were actually a few train carts in the beginning whose destination was “Unknown.”
Next we went to the Wannsee Villa, where the Wannsee Conference took place led by Reinhard Heinrich. Inside was a whole museum filled with amazing information, a lot of which I was unaware of, even after everything we’ve learned so far. The most surreal part about this little trip was the fact that we were standing in the actual building where Nazis voted in favor for the Final Solution of the Jewish Question to be carried out. It was just like a vacation house on a beautiful lake, which Mr. Gavin said is a big spot for Berliners to go to the beach when the weather is nice (he’s been there too, of course!).
Lastly, we stopped in a Berlin neighborhood where we searched for stepping stones, which were little mini remembrances for specific people that lost their lives due to the Holocaust. The location of these stepping stones, which were goldish placards set straight into the cobblestones, was representing the last known location that these people were seen at which I thought was really incredible, especially because we kept finding them everywhere throughout this neighborhood. There was also a memorial in this neighborhood which was shown through signs on lamp posts- one side had an image and the other a German sentence. I found it interesting how strategically all of these signs were placed in reference to the rest of the community (for example, there was a sign talking about how Aryan and non-Aryan children were no longer allowed to play with one another and this was directly next to a children’s playground).
After finally arriving to our hotel, we only had a hot second to drop off our luggage before going out to dinner at the Beer Garden restaurant. The food was delicious and it was super fun because they were playing live music and all of the BLS kids were dancing along with other European kids! (S/o Abdul for the nice moves) We got back to our hotel and everyone was exhausted as we attempted to set up our little Samsung phones which were not cooperating so well. Looking forward to the next few days in beautiful Berlin and then we’ll be off! Farewell :)
It’s been more than 24 hours and we are tired with very little sleep but Germany is so WONDERFUL! We got to experience Munich for a few hours and get ourselves acquainted with the intricacies of European travel, especially for those who have never travelled out of the country!
Almost missing our second short flight to Berlin, we arrived safely and finally got to travel on a DOUBLE DECKER BUS, with a very skilled driver. Almost immediately every student in there was in awe of the sheer beauty that is Berlin’s architecture and aesthetics, especially older types of complex architecture alongside very modern sleek block buildings, with murals, artwork, and vibrancy everywhere in between. Our first stop on the bus was Gleis 17 (Track 17), a train stop in Grünewald that was held significance in being one of the big deportation sites for Jews in Berlin, with embossed dates, amounts, and final destinations for trains sent to camps or ghettos like Theresienstadt, Łódź, Auschwitz, and many others. It was astounding the accuracy of the numbers provided, as well as the casual manner in which German citizens treated a pretty significant monument, which I believe we all treated with respect. Our next stop was in Wannsee, specifically the beautiful Wannsee villa in which the Wannsee Conference was held, a meeting held by Heydrich Reinhard, discussing the Final Solution of the Jewish Question in Europe, mainly discussing the new ways to “evacute” aka mass murder thousands and millions of Jews. The terrible conference that had taken place there in 1942 was completely juxtaposed by the beauty of the villa, overlooking several gardens and an amazing lake with artistic architecture all around.
Our final and most exhausted stop was in West Berlin, the Bavarian quarter specifically, where the Bayerische Platz had several Stolpersteine, or “stumbling stones” that were created by an artist who placed bronze inlaid stones in front of the last known residences of Holocaust victims, as well as observing the many placards places under several lampposts, all of which displayed examples of the restrictive laws created against the Jews, specifically because of the large Jewish population housed in that neighborhood.
All in all, as exhausted, dehydrated, and sweaty as we were, we are extremely tired but so excited to be in Germany, especially with the gelatinous potatoes and German dancing at HB München for dinner. Thank you to Ms. Freeman, Mr. Gavin, Mr. Howard, Ms. Foley, and Julie for helping keep us together and not get run over by Berlin bikers. Auf Wiedersehen
How much sleep can a hoard of BLS kids get on a plane to Munich? Answer: about as much as we get during finals week.
After a lovely few hours of movies, games (battleship was a favorite), and aggressively sought shut-eye, we landed in Berlin to board a bus to a memorial established by the train tracks where tens of thousands of Jews were deported to various camps. Each of the trains that left are marked on the metal by the side of the tracks, including dates, numbers of passengers, and destination. Nearby were pedestrians, bikers, ice cream shops and beautiful houses, and there are luxury apartments under construction right in the vicinity, planting the question of what is the proper respect demanded for such a memorial, and how easily overlooked its presence and meaning can become. We met a granddaughter of a victim of the Holocaust as she left a flower by the specific date her grandfather left, introducing an unexpected human reminder of the impact of the Holocaust today.
We then departed for and arrived at the House of the Wannsee Conference, a beautifully constructed building overlooking a lake (or pond, there is an ongoing struggle to define these terms) made even more lovely but the sunshine and gentle breeze in Berlin today. It is eerie to imagine the this is the same place that the decision to exterminate all Jews was made here. The building itself has become a museum and educational center, with an extensive history of the war and the Holocaust that was difficult to absorb when many of us were jet-lagged, but incredibly helpful, disturbing, and informative. Many of us enjoyed the quotations in the last hallway, including the voices of some survivors and some children of survivors, reminding us of Maus and Art Spiegleman’s own struggle which we got a taste of in our classes.
Our final stop was a neighborhood, Bayerischerplatz, to see the Stih and Schrock Memorial, along with the Stolpersteine. This consisted of signs attached to lampposts chronicalling various laws discriminating against Jews, placed in strategic locations that parallel the modern buildings. For example, there was a law about baptisms and conversions placed outside a church, and one about children playing located near a playground. In addition, there were little bronze plaques located around the neighborhood with the names, birthdates, death dates, and death places of victims of the Holocaust, some of whose stories we read out loud. Overall, the sights we saw today really called into question the effectiveness of certain choices when designing a memorial- all extremely different emotional and intellectual experiences, there clearly isn’t a set or established idea for memorializing an event such as a genocide. Considering our Facing final project, this is certainly an interesting day to note when designing our own memorials later on.
After battling some elevator issues, we checked into our hotel rooms- which are great- and bopped off to dinner at Hofbräu Wirtshaus, a spectacular place with waiters and waitresses dressed in traditional southern German garb, an interesting addition to our first real meal in Germany. Moreover, there was live music, including a playlist of “Dancing Queen”, the Macarena, and an unexpectedly catchy song called “Baby Give It Back” which none of us knew but a group of Danish students also on a school trip were very excited to recognize. We were caught up in the delightfully international experience of dancing with these students, along with a few Germans, before enjoying very filling meals. We finally headed back to the hotel to try to figure out our phones, but after some unpredictable technical issues, we were released to our rooms for an anticipated sleep to prepare for tomorrow!
As students picked up their telephones in the final throes of the pre-trip week, it was clear that the anticipation of what we would experience on this trip was growing. Today's targeted populations presentations were on the Afro-Germans and Afro-Europeans and many referenced the post-Kolonial efforts to highlight Germany's need to recognize the realities and implications of what happened in its former colonial possessions. How exciting to think that one week from tomorrow, we will be meeting with members of that group to see what they are doing in Berlin's Afrikanische Viertel.