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Day 1 (Berlin Arrival) / Day 2 (Berlin)

May 10, 2012

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Following an eight hour flight which consisted of two hours of in-flight poker and a few episodes of Family Guy, our study tour to Germany successfully landed at the Berlin-Tegel Airport, a destination for which none of us would ever see again (TXL is being shut down in June 2012 since it is no longer needed now that Communism is out the door- hooray!).  After a relatively short wait for luggage we left for our hotel which was located in Alexanderplatz in Berlin.  We were allowed a few hours downtime (downtime here translates to a mass panic and subsequent hunting down of places with free Facebook access) before we were taken to our first  destination.  We donned our sailor hats and headed out on a pleasant river cruise that included sightseeing of Berlin’s most famous waterfront buildings and bridges.  I had no idea Berlin had more bridges than Venice did!  The warm air and light breeze meant most of us tried very hard to stay awake but jet lag was hard to overcome.  After the cruise the students gathered at a restaurant for what would be the first European meal of many.  Spargel, a sort of white asparagus, was in season when we arrived and our professors were very excited for us to have a German meal with the legendary vegetable.  I myself tuckered in to a wienerschnitzel dish, a childhood favorite of breaded veal that had a side of potatoes, and mineral water (mitt kohlensäure aber natürlich!).  It was a nice evening to get to know our fellow classmates.

Topographie des Terrors / Berlin Wall

For the first full day I was immensely pleased with what I learned.  Being new to the Master’s program means I probably know much less than everyone else but the tour guides did an excellent job lecturing about memory of the events of World War II as well as the Holocaust.  How do we want to bring the past back into consciousness?  Is it by commemorating victims or aggressively denouncing the perpetrators?  Do we place emphasis on WWII, the Reich, the Communist era?  These were all great questions that we were asked to reflect upon while we perused the Topographie des Terrors, the museum that stands on the former Gestapo headquarters.  There is no correct answer as living historiography shows us that we will always put forth new ways to remember the past as well as seek to analyze the ways in which we remembered in the present.  We wandered the museum and looked at images of those who had been rounded up by the Gestapo for interrogation.  Then we went outside to the front of the museum where parts of the Berlin Wall still stood.  From there we walked around back of the museum and listened to stories as told by our tour guide of people who were interrogated by the Gestapo in the 30s.  We listened to these stories as we stood by the foundation of two former prison cells.

Berlin Holocaust MemorialOur next destination was the Berlin Holocaust Memorial.  As an undergrad I learned about this immersive site in a German Culture course and remembered how much I wanted to experience it in person.  As we walked up to the memorial I noticed how much larger it was than I had thought.  The graduate students gathered together with our wonderful tourguide for a look at how the memorial was designed and the criticisms some hold today.  2,711 long, concrete blocks called stele are “arranged” in a space of varying heights and angles.  I put the word arranged in quotations because the artist left the arrangement shrouded in ambiguity.  In some rows one can see a block is missing.  In other places the block could be so low to the ground you might not realize it’s there.  There are even ground-level stele outside of the memorial confines.  Our tour guide said we should think about this as we were given the chance to go into the memorial.

It’s true how disoriented one feels when walking on the undulating concrete.  The further I walked and the more the stele loomed over Inside Berlin Holocaust Memorialme, the less I was “thinking”.  That is to say that I thought less with words and more with feelings, sights, and sounds.  Everyone has a unique experience and how I felt could be totally different than how someone else perceived the place.  But the memorial took on a primal experience.  Had I been Jewish during the 30s and 40s, instinct would have told me to fear every move I was about to make.  At every turn I sank deeper into a concrete maze where high towers blocked me from seeing the light.  With a few steps this way or that way I found myself on higher or lower ground, but still the blocks rose over me with a sinister feeling.  Personally I think the memorial was done quite well.  It’s hard to connect with a memorial when all you do is read a plaque or “stand on a spot”, so to say.  This memorial is tumultuous and serves as a reminder that things didn’t happen at once back then– it was a gradual but fearful experience.

We headed to another part of Berlin where the Berlin Wall still stood and walked around.  It still surprises me that this wall was 1) real and 2) real up until 1989.  The concept of having such a thing to divide a city and to divide Europe– it doesn’t seem possible!  But unfortunately it was very real and the Berliners today make sure that history will never repeat itself.  Where the wall is no longer in place, two dark red bricks in the ground serve to remind people of the former division of the city. Here, graffiti reminded us of the division of human rights.

Berlin Wall Former Berlin Wall

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