Ok, here’s the deal with Berlin. Originally when I started planning this trip, I had planned on spending at least 4 nights in all the major cities around Europe; Berlin was no exception. However, the more I researched the daytime activities and sights to see, the more I began to think that maybe two nights would be enough.
While Berlin has undergone a fantastic reformation in the minds of many, it can’t shake its historical past. Namely, it’s WWII times of terror. Consequently, the majority of attractions center around this event and the tyrannical reign of Adolf Hitler. So, not knowing if I could handle 4 days of Hitler hysteria, I decided on two.
As I began to travel around and meet people coming from Berlin, I started to wonder if maybe I had made a mistake in only staying two nights. Then, by the time I reached Copenhagen and met a couple “Berliners”, I was really beginning to doubt myself.
My Berlin friends (Saba and Neele) couldn’t say enough good things about their hometown! And to prove it to me, they invited me to a little grilling get-together at Saba’s house on the first night of my arrival.
Turns out, Neele lived 5 minutes away from my hostel and offered to meet me. Together we traveled to Saba’s to meet the rest of their friends, eat, drink and be merry.
And what a merry occasion it was! Surrounded by a room full of Germans, I got a small taste of what it’s like to be a minority, but I didn’t mind it in the least! Even though I might not have been able to speak German, I could understand the laughter and love that comes when you get friends together over good food and drink! Everyone was beyond friendly and tried their damnedest to speak English and include me in the conversation. And they even taught me a little German!
Eventually, as often happens when you get people sitting in a circle and drinking, we decided to play the drinking game Never Have I Ever. Obviously, it is not called that in Germany because at the start of every turn, the Germans would look at me and say “What do I say? Never have I what?”. It was a very fun evening and a great introduction to Berlin. I can’t say thank you enough to Neele and Saba for reaching out to the lost American girl and inviting her to dinner!
It was then I began to regret only staying four nights. Clearly, these people were some of the kindest and welcoming of the people I had met thus far.
But by the next day, the tables had turned once more. As I have already mentioned, Berlin does not try and forget it’s past. Instead it embraces it with sorrow, remorse, and education so that this torturous history will hopefully not repeat itself.
I began my first day at the Berlin Wall with the East Side Gallery. Of course this is a very integral part of Berlin post WWII and through the Cold War. It had major implications on the lives of Berliners, especially with regard to which side of the wall you were on.
Naturally, this is one of those things to have to do when you are in Berlin and for that reason, I unfortunately have to express a little bit of disappointment with Berlin. Knowing that hundreds, maybe thousands of people visit this place every day, I had thought that there might be a little more information for the history illiterate (namely me). Just something to give you a little perspective. But the closest they came was a small pillar that announced a quick spiel, about a minute, around the the wall and it’s current state as a gallery.
So I walked along the wall, reached the end, turned around and came back. It took me all of half an hour to see this towering representation of segregation and oppression. Considering how long it took them to tear it down (eh hem Mr. Gorbachev…), I was expecting to stay longer. It is what it is, a wall with graffiti. Good graffiti, but graffiti nonetheless.
Checkpoint Charlie is more of a quick photo-stop than anything else. You can get your passport stamped, take a photo with some guys in army uniforms, and… That’s about it. There is a little museum you can visit if this landmark really turns your crank, but for me it wasn’t worth €12.50. So I snapped a quick photo, or five, and carried on.
A couple blocks from Checkpoint Charlie is the Topography of Terror. Though at first it sounds a bit malefic, it is really quite inviting. Though, once you get inside, you begin to understand the name.
Comprised of “15 panels” (more like 50) of information, this exhibit showcases Berlin and the beginning, middle, and end of the war, biographies the major players of the Nazi regime, and delves into the real horror story, The Holocaust. Also, it explains the perfect storm of circumstances that lead to the appointment of what is known as the Third Reicht and the vulnerable state of the nation that allowed them to believe Hitler was the answer.
Walking in, I was planning to spend about an hour or so wandering through the exhibition and reading the panels. An hour turned into two and a half and I became completely enveloped by the wealth of information that surrounded me. It truly was amazing to learn all the factors that lead to WWII and the Holocaust. While I had learned about this horrible genocide in history class, I think I learned more about it in these two an a half hours than I had in three years of school.
Obviously very well organized and curated, the Topography of Terror is one of the best exhibits on the events of WWII that I have seen, anywhere. If you have the chance, I highly recommend having a looksee. And it’s free, for obvious reasons.
Finally, the last (and most emotionally intense) stop of the day, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. At first blush, the title seems a little unsettling. However, as you let it sink in, you realize that Germany is just being honest with you. What happened during the years of the Holocaust was a mass murder, genocide of millions of people. They didn’t volunteer their lives for the cause; they were selected by pure hatred for difference. And, they were murdered. Grappling with the title is nothing compared to what you feel once you go underground, into the belly of the beast: the memorial.
While the street view of the memorial has received its fair share of flack for its lack of purpose, the naysayers clearly never ventured down the stairs. Here you are guided through 6 rooms that put faces, feelings, and families to the number of Jews murdered during the Holocaust (around 6 million).
Starting out, it appears innocuous enough; a timeline shows you how the discrimination lead to segregation, then isolation, then extermination. It’s the sad truth that we all have learned about this horrible time in human history. Then, as you leave the main room and head through the threshold, you are introduced to 6 people, complete with photos, all who perished.
You don’t have to be a revolutionary to put yourself deadly peril. It was enough simply to be oneself. It was sufficient to take one single step and one ran into the traps maliciously set for Jews.
The next room holds shreds of postcards, letters, diary entries, any scribble written by prisoners to friends, family, and often to no one at all because they had no one left. Honestly, this is one of most heartbreaking things I have ever seen. Just recollecting them now, I feel a tightness in my throat, for I could not imagine being imprisoned in a train car bound for death and hopelessly writing a last postcard home to your family containing you last goodbye. This is the mindset you enter in the memorial. The mindset of the murdered. It’s the heaviest burden I have had to bare, and the weight was monumental.
…I’m hugging you, in tears. I would so much have loved to hug you again, my poor children, I will never see you again.
Leaving the memorial, I walked back to my hostel feeling an immense sense of guilt, because I was human. Because this was something humans did to other humans. It’s inconceivable to think that something this horrific ever happened. But Germany is there to remind you that it did.
This is why I don’t recommend Berlin as a solo traveler. I have heard amazing things about the clubs and parties you find at night, but I couldn’t count on that. What I could count on, however, was spending my days in museums and memorials recounting the terror of the Third Reicht and the mob mentality a dictatorship is capable of. And at the end of the day, there is no one to share this with, so you are forced to carry these emotions around with you. It’s just too much for me.
I do appreciate Berlin for its honesty and atonement with regard to the events of WWII. It’s a sad history to carry with you and you can see their disappointment that such a great place is most notorious for a despicable leader and a tyranny of terror. But just as they don’t forget, neither will you. The “burden of Berlin” is not left behind when you leave the Brandenburg Gate. You will always remember the impact that these impressive displays have on you, in hopes that the events of WWII and the Holocaust remain in the past with no hope of ever repeating themselves again.
I can’t say that we’ve abolished discrimination, as there are countries around the world that continue to use hate and violence as weapons against people who are different. But maybe, with reminders like Berlin, we can have a small hope for just a smidgen of acceptance. Some day.