While I would have loved to travel around more of Europe and see more of countries like Germany, I didn’t have time, so I only made a quick stop over in Berlin on my way up to Norway. I had two full days of exploring in Berlin and played the ultimate tourist. I put on my yoga pants, comfy walking sandals, loaded up my Maps Me app and with my camera around my neck, and hit Berlin with the help of some suggested must sees from my friend Mike who had been living there for years. The weather was perfect – sunny and warm! I decided to save money on public transit and just use my own two feet and a heart beat for this adventure. Surely all the baguettes I ate in Paris would need to be burned off!
I headed down towards the Spree river and crossed over to check out the Reichstag building, with the huge glass dome atop it. The signs said you coud only enter the dome by appointment, and I didn’t feel like waiting around, so I just admired it from down below. I passed beneath the pillars of the Brandenburg Gate and listened as a plump German man dressed in Lederhosen pumped music from a street organ, while people munched on large pretzels. I mused at how wonderfully German the scene was and sat for a while on a bench to take it all in and rest my feet. I walked next through the pretty university grounds and marvelled at the absolutely brilliant crosswalk ‘man’ on German street lights!
The thing I was most excited for in Berlin was of course the history. This was the seat of power for Hitler over 70 years ago and this city was bursting at every corner with history from the wars. I began to come across monuments on my walk, one in particular that really caused you to pause. The Neue Wache was originally designed in the 1800’s as a guardhouse, and after the first World War it became a war memorial but then was badly damaged by the bombing of the second World War. After repairs, in 1969 the remains of a nazi soldier and a concentration camp victim were enshrined inside the building. In1993 it was yet again rededicated and a sculpture titled ‘mother and dead son’ was installed. It sits all alone in the middle of the room, demanding your attention. You can’t help but feel the solemnity and stay for a moment of quiet reflection.
I made my way next to the German History Museum and ended up spending the rest of my afternoon there, as I tend to lose myself in museums for hours on end. They had some amazing exhibits on, one being “Homosexuality_ies” which was absolutely brilliant. One room had the pillars covered in small video screens that would play a video of a person telling their coming out story. They would also have loan and display an article that the person associated with their coming out. Another wall featured paintings by or of famous people from the LGBTQ community from earlier in history. Another room was filled with facts of the history of the LGBTQ community within Berlin – from headlines in newspapers, to sex ‘houses’, to movements, to art. Another Room was a tribute to those who in WWII were murdered for being targeted as homosexual, their portraits on display, what little of their stories was known, told. Another room featured a brilliant set up of little alcoves in the wall, and when you sat in them speakers inside would tell you quotes from historical figures that are horrifically discriminatory (and ridiculous) against the LGBTQ community – it was difficult and shocking to listen to and made you sad for how pathetically uneducated some people are. This was just a few of the sections of this massive exhibit and if you happen to be in Berlin while it’s on, I can’t urge you enough to give yourself a few hours one afternoon and check it out- it’s amazing.
I spent the rest of my time in the museum wandering through the sections on WWII as that was of course what interested me the most. It was surreal to see so many relics for the war, from the Nazi regime and from Hitler himself on display. It was heart wrenching to read all of the history that came with them. I teared up again and again and again. It was almost numbing walking through artifact after artifact, seeing the propaganda, the letters, the army clothing and weaponry, the concentration camp uniforms, the swastikas, the tins of Zyklon B gas… You find yourself transported in time and you find yourself in complete and utter disbelief. I kept thinking… “Jesus… this… this actually all happened. This was allowed to happen in human history, in supposed ‘civilized’ human history. The most atrocious and barbaric of acts was carried out in the name of war and ‘putiry’… So many lives lost. So much death. So much destruction. So much loss. So much god damn pain. Such an utter disregard for basic human life.”
I found myself in such a rage at times as I wandered in a stupor through the museum. So angry that this all happened. I felt myself overcome with this profound sadness, and at times despair. I felt disgusted to be a part of the human race, a race that would do this to their fellow humans. And then I would feel a moment of relief- relief that this has all been so acutely recorded, so intricately documented (at least that which wasn’t systematically destroyed by the Nazi regime) so that in the name of all that is good something like this is NEVER allowed to happen again. The mix of emotions you feel while in Berlin for the first time, exploring the history of WWII is innumerable. You will be an emotional mess, I promise you. But you cannot go to Berlin without visiting some of these places, without seeing first hand some of the destruction of that war. I learned so much when I was in Berlin, my brain was actually hurting from the information overload.
After the museum I needed fresh air and a break, so I headed outdoors and was greeted by the rain. I headed over to a sheltered columned walkway to take cover like the other people out and about, and let my ears take me towards the sweet sounds of an accordion. I sat down and listened contentedly as a woman played beautifully. I felt my spirits lifting already and I marvelled at this beautiful city. With such a dark history, they embrace it, they ensure the world remembers this history to ensure it is never repeated. And then they carry on. They walk in the rain. They play their instruments, busking on the streets. They bike past you laughing. And they make you smile with the sweet sounds of the push pull of each note on the accordion. It was like the city knew what I needed at that very moment, and lifted me back up.
After enjoying her music for a half hour, I threw two euro into her hat and walked off in the rain to take a peak at the Berliner Dom, the Cathedral of Berlin that is without a doubt the most impressive building in the city in my opinion. I wasn’t venturing inside today, as it was pouring rain and I needed to start making my way home to stop at the store and grab some food for dinner; I’d save the inside for tomorrow. While I didn’t have much time in Berlin, I packed quite a lot in and basically recall my time there as an intense history lesson. It was strange to be in a city that was was nearly entirely decimated by bombing, and thus rebuilt to sort of mimic what it used to look like. The buildings looked old, but you could tell they weren’t that old at all. I’d love to return someday and explore more.
The next day I headed back in the same direction and made a detour to see the Memorial to Murdered Jews of Europe. On a groundwork that is slightly rolling, over 4.7 acres are covered in 2711 concrete slabs (known as stelae) of varying heights, creating a strong image that can’t help but bring to mind a graveyard on shifting ground. But the real tribute lies beneath the above ground structures – beneath is what they call, quite simply, ‘place of information’. The names of every known Jewish European to have died in the war are recorded here. Underneath you can wander quietly through the displays which will shake you to the core. Real letters written on scrap paper of children knowing they are going to die, saying goodbye to their parents, expressing their fear in their shaky scribble. Letters from mothers to her children to tell them to be strong, how much she loves them, that she will never see them again- letters thrown from the trains heading to death camps. One room reads aloud the names of every Jew murdered. Another room has full family histories of Jews who were murdered. It’s harrowing. It’s heart wrenching. But I am so glad I went to pay my respects and learn the names and stories of some of the families lost.
I emerged from beneath the memorial, again my mind racked with emotions, my body tired from the pull and sway of those emotions; I’ve always been a person who feels so empathetically, so strongly, when others hurt, I hurt. I came out to bright sunshine warming my face and brightening me instantly – again this city seemed to know just what I needed after these intense encounters. I began walking to allow everything to sink in as I got fresh air. I was heading down to the Berliner Dom to see the inside and climb to the top and walk around the highest dome to get a great view of the surrounding city. After the Cathedral I made my way towards my last stop of the day, a remnant of the Berlin wall and the Topography of Terror museum.
Seeing a piece of the wall still standing was incredible. Surreal. A huge piece of history, tangible, right before me. The Topography of Terror museum was half outdoor- in front of the Wall – and half indoor, just behind you as you read the information in front of the Wall. The building is built on the site where the 3rd Reich headquarters for the Gestapo and Secret State police were centred.
Yet after all of the museums, all of the history, I kept thinking how amazing it was that Berlin was able to take this dark history and expose it under every light possible, to create memorials, to fill museums, to endlessly educate people on that history. Berlin is known for so much more than museums and the history of the war (like their wild night life!) but this was the aspect I chose to focus on as it interested me the most, in my short two days here. In Berlin you will find open spaces that promote dialogue – a truly modern, progressive and accepting city full of art and remembrance. And ridiculously awesome street crossing signs 😀