Berlin

I flew from Salzburg to Berlin, and was pleased to be offered free newspapers and magazines on AirBerlin – and although I don’t read German it was the first time on any of my flights I’d been offered free daily reading material. AirBerlin also give you free chocolate hearts as you leave the plane – another tick for the airline.

The weather in Berlin was raining, cold and windy for pretty much the whole four days I was there. I wasn’t too worried though, and still went to visit the remaining sections of the Berlin Wall, the Jewish Memorial and the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp.

I noticed the green traffic light man as I walked around Berlin, and was struck by the little thing. He didn’t move as they did in Spain, with the count down timer (they walked and then run as the timer counted down the time left to cross the road), however this little man was wearing a cap, was a vivid green colour and was positioned as if he had a purpose and was going somewhere. Later on I saw him replicated in all the tourist shops, and wondered about his significance. I asked one shop owner, and she simply said ‘it’s just art’, which didn’t satisfy me one bit. I managed to find a mug with the words ‘keep on walking’ on it, and I took it to be a motivational symbol. I then discovered a postcard with an inscription in German, and returned with it to my hosts’ house and asked for a translation. My host in Berlin was a friend of a friend of my German friend Markus in Sydney. Tobias had kindly agreed to host me without knowing anything about me and I was very grateful. He lived with a friend Mirkoand my four days in Berlin were interesting and informative, thanks to those two highly intellectual guys.

Apparently the little green man I so liked was only in East Berlin. They were different in West Berlin and after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 the lights in the East were meant to be changed to match those in the West. However, everyone protested, saying that they should remain as they were as a lasting reminder, and future preventative measure, of the division the city had endured for nearly 30 years, and so they stayed. I didn’t get to West Berlin, but you can now tell which half of the city you’re in based on those little green men.

My hosts took me out for pizza, and we shared the biggest pizza I’ve ever seen in my life. It was almost one meter square, and easily fed the three of us. The place we went to specialised in huge pizzas, and that was all they served. The owner/chef would not negotiate with toppings, you chose one and couldn’t do half-half, and it came as a whole pizza and we cut it how we liked.

Another thing I noticed that was particular to Berlin were the decorations in their trains. Initially you don’t notice it, yet on closer inspection I realised the walls and windows were covered in miniature replica silhouettes of the most famous and popular buildings in Berlin. The Brandenburger Tor was there, as was the TV tower and the Reichstag, among other churches and museums. It was a pretty cool way of subliminally advertising the city and decorating the trains at the same time.

I went to the Nordbahnhof train station, which during the time of the Berlin Wall had been a ‘ghost station’. The Wall divided the city above ground, however some underground train stations still connected the two city halves. Three lines travelled beneath the old city centre of East Berlin on their way from one section of West Berlin to another. The trains did not stop at the stations located in East Berlin and the passengers from West Berlin came to regard them as ‘ghost stations’. They were guarded by policemen and soldiers, were not used as station stops and provided no access to the eastern section of the city. Numerous barriers were erected in them to prevent the tunnels being used as an escape routes. Above ground these unused stations disappeared from the East Berlin cityscape, with brick walls blocking off the entrances and the removal of all signs, effectively erasing the existence of the stations from the public mind. (Information courtesy of information boards at the Nordbahnhof station).

There is a fantastic information centre about the Berlin Wall, which was not just a wall but included a barbed wire fence, a guard post, an anti-vehicle barricade and a screen to block view and prevent escapes from East Berlin. The information centre is near the remaining sections of the wall, along the Bernauer Strass (Street), and a very interesting memorial has been constructed around those remaining sections. A photo board depicts the faces of each person who died as a result of the Wall, and the ‘Wall Walk’ culminates at the Documentation Centre. There is a tower that you can climb to see into another memorial which is boarded on one side by a remaining section of the actual wall and a replica wall on the other side that people can peer through to see what ‘no man’s land’ would have looked like.

I walked to the Brandenburger Tor to see the arch that is so often replicated in pictures depicting the Wall, and passed the Holocaust Monument on the way. The Holocaust Monument is a large area with 2711 concrete blocks which create a field of stelae in memory of the murdered Jews of Europe. I went back to the Holocaust Monument two days later to look through the information centre, and was so glad I did for it was the best Memorial I’ve been to in a long time, possibly ever. It was divided into six main areas, and each had a theme and was purposeful in the information displayed. I thought it was extremely well designed and the concrete stelae blocks above were continued in the building below, creating a connection between the two areas.

The Room of Names in the information centre was particularly striking, because I instantly felt as if I was in a morgue. The air temperature was colder than the other rooms, the lighting was dim, and the concrete blocks simulating coffins lay on the ground with blue lights emanating a glow from underneath. Names of victims of the Holocaust were projected one at a time on the walls, with a short biography of the person read aloud. The Room of Families was another one I thought was especially well done. It was dedicated to 15 families who were victims, yet the interesting thing was these families had some photographs and documentation that survived the Holocaust and the war. Each of the descending stelae depicted a family photograph if they had one, any documents they had regarding family member’s imprisonment and or death and gave a list of the individuals who survived and those who died. It provided a more personalised account of the war and gave faces and names to some of the victims.

Checkpoint Charlie was next on my list of places to see, and I tried a traditional currywurst along the way. It was basically a large hotdog that was smothered in tomato sauce with a sprinkling of curry powder on top. Not all that flash really. The replica building of Checkpoint Charlie was good to see, however I was not going to pay 12.90 to get into the museum. I bought some green traffic light man souvenirs at the shop opposite, and discovered I can fit into kids t-shirts and save myself a few ‘s in the process.

I went to the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, and traipsed around the site in the pouring rain all day. The Sachsenhausen camp site had not been maintained as much as the one in Dachau, although almost every building you went into was a mini museum of differing aspects of the Camp and WW2 in general. There was a stack of personal documents and items from previous prisoners, including clothes, ID and pictures. I walked around the roll-call area; the shoe-testing track – where prisoners were made to march and run endlessly around to test the material for the soles of army boots; the barracks and prison; station Z and the execution trench; the infirmary and the mass graves for the victims.

I learnt that three months after the end of the war and the liberation of Europe, the Soviet Secret Services used Sachsenhausen from 1945 to 1950 to hold around 60,000 prisoners, of whom about 12,000 died from hunger and disease. There was so much information it became overload, and I left at the end of the day soaking wet and nursing a headache.

My time in Germany came to an end, and I had learnt a lot more about events from 1933 to 1989, during my short time in the country. Although the weather in Berlin wasn’t ideal, I liked the city, enjoyed the cheap food and postage rates, and loved their museums even though I didn’t get to them all. Berlin is highly recommended if you want an educational holiday.

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