January 6-9

12 Jan

January 6: It’s our first full day in Berlin! I didn’t know what to expect when I arrived here. I knew it was big and full of rich historical meaning, but how can one prepare for its actual cultural impact? The class went on a walking tour to explore some of the important sites of the city, as well as many Holocaust-oriented locations. These sites included, but not limited to, the Holocaust Memorial, the site of Hitler’s bunker, Brandenburg Gate, the Berlin Wall, and the Roosevelt Plate. This was also the day one of our classmates experienced the effects of being pick-pocketed. Don’t worry, she is a trooper and all is well!  Unfortunately for me, I was sick that day, so my perceptions of the city were only as good as the reactions of my peers. I do encourage you all to connect with your friend/family members on the trip to see what they thought of the city.

January 7: As we approach the one-week mark in our journey, the material and site visits are becoming more and more serious. This has helped us prepare for our first camp visit to Sachsenhausen.

Sachsenhausen was a labor camp that held about 35,000 prisoners. It was a “model camp,” meaning that it was one of the first camps to be constructed and used during the period of the Holocaust. In fact, the construction of this camp was started during the same time of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

Of course, I can only speak for myself, but it’s hard to put into words what I felt when walking around the camp. I think the best way to describe it is to think of putting grief, guilt, shock, exhaustion, and heartbreak into a large pot and creating a sort of emotional potpourri. Its essence was stronger in some locations of the camp than others. Seeing the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign at the entrance, imagining sleeping in the crammed barracks, walking down to the execution trench, observing the remnants of the crematorium, realizing the open plot of grass at the front of the camp was a mass grave…all of these moments sent chills down my spine.

However, the most powerful moment for me was towards the beginning of the tour. The camp is set up to go at your own pace, so much of the time I was alone with my own thoughts and reactions. I walked through the roll call lawn and faced towards the entrance of the camp, just as the prisoners were forced to do every day, twice a day. They stood there for hours at a time while they were counted and/or awaited their labor orders for the day. I stood facing the electric, barbed-wire fence and tried to comprehend how it might have felt to literally face the barriers that kept me from my freedom. It was unimaginable. I never thought that an eight foot wall and wire could make me feel so small.

Another interesting thing about Sachsenhausen was not the camp itself, but the town around it. In order to get to the camp, we took the subway from Berlin to the end of the line, walked about 15 minutes, and stumbled upon this adorable little street. There were kids walking up and down the side walk, white picket fences, and really nice small German houses. It was at the end of that neighborhood where the entrance to the camp hits you. It was so eerie. How can people live here, so close to historical terror? And more importantly, how could people live here in the past when those events were happening? That put the thought of discrediting the events of the Holocaust in a whole new light.

We rode the subway back to Berlin and grabbed some lunch at Vapiano’s. I had never eaten there before, but it was delicious. I joined a large group to go visit the Pergamon Museum, the site of many tapestries, art pieces, and relics from the Roman, Greek, and Istanbul regions. It was an amazing museum, one unlike those we can see in the states. I think the cultural opportunities in Europe are one of the perks about being on the trip, since we are exposed to four vastly different cultures with countless historical and artistic lessons to be taught

January 8: Today is our last full day in Berlin and I feel like I could spend so much more time exploring all the sites here. Thinking back, I’m pretty sure this is the largest city I have seen to date, and it is hard to conceptualize how massive it is. Perhaps the future will bring me another opportunity to visit again.

We woke up early, or what seemed to be early, to venture to the Berlin Jewish Museum. This museum went through the history of the Jewish Tradition and how it has evolved over periods of time. Hands down, this was the coolest museum I have ever seen. The artifacts and ways the information was presented were so artistic and open-ended, fostering a dual purpose of drawing personal meanings with each display. Usually museums strive to communicate simple, straightforward information for the purpose of educating the public. Here, you were expected to analyze material and interpret it. There were two specific rooms that carried out this philosophy perfectly. The first was the Holocaust Tower (or, as my roommate Becca mistook as- The Tower of Terror). It is a remembrance room located on the corner of the museum that is at least five stories high and walled with solid concrete. There is no lighting, heating, or ventilation- only a sliver of natural light coming from the top of the roof and a solid steel door. The purpose of this room is to immerse oneself in a completely isolated state and reflect on the lives of Holocaust victims. The simplicity of the room sparked such complicated feeling and reflections. The second room was called the Fallen Leaves exhibit. This room comprised of a dark, desolate area, however it had more natural light than the Holocaust Tower. The floor was made up of 10,000 steel plates with faces. The purpose of the exhibit is to walk across the faces without making a noise. When doing this, we were forced to look at all the faces, giving it an incredibly creepy effect. The room is hard to describe, but it was SO COOL. All in all, the museum wasn’t too solemn, but it made me think more about how many challenges Judaism has faced over the years.

Later, the group visited Check Point Charlie, a Cold War site where people could cross from East to West Berlin. They are currently building a visitor center of sorts to commemorate the site. The area around Check Point Charlie was very touristy, and to be honest, I was checked-out of Charlie (so punny, right?) and was more worried about being the next pick-pocket victim on our trip. So, I didn’t pay that much attention to the information. Oops.

After we finished our class tours, some of us ate lunch and decided to go to the very edge of town to see the East Side Gallery.  The East Side Gallery is composed of a large section of the Berlin Wall that is dedicated to graffiti art. It took us a while to navigate the subway system (and a minor run-in with the Subway ticket police) to find the site, but it was so worth seeing. The double-sided art was incredible and stretched for more than a quarter mile.

We came back to the hotel to discover that another Elon Winter Term trip had arrived in Berlin and were staying at the hotel! It was nice to see the members of the Gutenberg trip and learn about all of their adventures in London, their previous stop to Berlin.

January 9: Today was really no different than that of our drive to Berlin. We all piled in the bus for our 7-8 hour drive to Warsaw. I think as a class, we were more worried about going to Poland than when we came to Germany. The language is very difficult and our perceptions of the country were desolate at best. For example, I remember in my high school AP European History teacher telling my class that all he wanted to high-five a Polish person because their country has been through hell and back, and is still alive! If that’s not a depressing preconception, I don’t know what is.

Driving through the countryside was about the same as driving through Germany, expect it was actually snowy. Many of our classmates have noted that they have never seen “fluffy” snow, so I think they are in for a fun time! We made it safely to Warsaw and we are excited for what is to come.

 

 

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