My planned adventure to Berlin had a more ‘exciting’ start than planned with airport delays and taxi drama; all of which increased my general sense of ‘whelm’ on my first day. A big breakfast and abundant cups of coffee later, I stepped out for my first exploratory walk. I had booked a tour in the afternoon, but thought I’d start my sightseeing by investigating some sites near my hotel on foot. They turned out to be the most emotional expeditions of my trip.
Acclimatising to the quiet Saturday morning roads, as well as drivers coming towards me from the opposite side of the road, (remembering not to stray into the cyclist’s lane on the pavement) I quickly found Niederkirchnerstrasse (formerly Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse) near Potsdamer Platz. My first destination was the relatively new centre: Topography of Terror. This had been recommended to me by various people and I knew of the historical significance but chose not to research it well before going. I was about to learn just how overwhelmed I could really be.
Approaching from the side, I had my first sighting of remains of the Berlin Wall. A section about 200 metres long had been preserved, complete with damage from the transitional period. I migrated straight towards this monument with a surreal feeling. I couldn’t help but draw parallels between the toppling of the wall and the toppling of the Apartheid regime in South Africa, and how recently both had occurred. It felt weird to confront a symbol of such division on the other side of the world, representing another massive political hurdle dismantled in my lifetime. I may not have understood the meaning upon hearing about the wall coming down as a child, as much as I didn’t fully comprehend the significance of the long polling station queues in the first democratic elections back home, but I had my own memories of both.
I was grateful to have a few quiet moments to slowly pace the section of wall before the inevitable busloads of tour groups started herding into the outdoor area. Right behind the wall on the site is an excavated basement. The building that had stood on this location, since destroyed, was used by the Gestapo as headquarters and the basement rooms as interrogation cells. While only partially uncovered, the area has been preserved and contains an exhibition mapping out the mechanisms Hitler and the Nazis used to achieve full control of the government as well as profiling selected victims of the SS terror tactics.
While looking down into this area I saw the number of groups congregating (and chatting loudly) and thought I would go inside the actual building and come back to this exterior portion on the way out. I had no idea what I was in for.
I underestimated just how much information there would be to take in. The exhibition is an exceptionally detailed account of how Germany evolved into a police state and how the use of intimidation and violence bullied a population into submission until there was no alternative in government except hatred. Numbered boards suspended from the ceiling displaying documents and photos from the extensive records kept by the SS of suspects, detainees, examples of humiliating members of the public and eventually going as far as the atrocities committed during the war across Europe.
I spent just over an hour slowly reading all the information and barely made it through the first third of the large room. I’d learned about the general aspects of the Nazi rise to power in high school and had seen so many documentaries and plays, read books of personal accounts and even visited the house where Anne Frank and her family famously hid in Amsterdam so thought I could remain detached. It all came crashing down on me though as I stood looking at a photo of a Rabbi being humiliated in a public square. I realised I was in the same city that this had occurred, and just how recent this history was and suddenly it all became too much for me. I had to stare at the floor and swallow hard for a moment.
Knowing I was in a sensitive zone I did a quick walk around of the rest of the museum and confirmed there was no realistic way I was going to complete the rest of the exhibition without sobbing and running out of time so decided to cut my losses on that morning and return later durning my stay. I took another look at how busy the excavated section was and decided to save it for a return visit too. I was gaining confidence in my bearings and knew I’d easily find the museum again. I had to save some emotions for my next destination.
A quick walk away was the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. A scattering of memorials can be found throughout Berlin for victims of the Nazis including homosexuals, Roma and Sinta as well as patients who were euthanized by the regime. I had read about the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe but didn’t comprehend the scale.
Composed of smooth rectangular concrete blocks of varying heights I wasn’t initially impressed as I approached, and assumed I probably wouldn’t spend too long in the open space. I then ventured in between the blocks, which are set in a dip in the ground meaning the central blocks are at least around ten feet high. Slowly walking through the closely set monoliths I understood the concept; as six million Jews had disappeared from existence during The Holocaust, so did the bodies of visitors in among the concrete of the memorial. You had no idea how many people were around or nearby where you were standing. You could turn left or right and your field of vision was limited, so you might hear voices but only see paving, blocks and sky.
Noisy children near me did get on my nerves a bit as I couldn’t help trying to comprehend the scale of the genocide, and again feeling a little overcome. I could have just been over tired, but it felt like even though this dark slice of history was well-known, it had finally become real to me. I placed my hands on a tall pillar and thought of those tortured and murdered, survivors and surviving family members, how this happened at all, how mass persecution is it still happening in this day and age and how anyone could cope with the intense and personal destruction. I slowly made my way back to the more day lit edges of the large memorial and watched how people vanished as they entered as well as many people taking jovial selfies which I personally felt rather distasteful.
I took my slightly achy feet across the road to some benches on the outer border of the Tier Garten and sat in the tree shade to sip some water and find a restful place in my mind after what seemed like a few hours of connecting with pure horror. It felt a privilege to be there in person, remembering all aspects of our human history is vital if we are to avoid repeating these abhorrent behaviours.
The Brandenburg Gate was my next stop and while this awesome spectacle grounded me, reminding me of where I was, it paled in comparison to the emotional sucker punch that had been my day so far. It was a welcome watershed which helped snap me back to the moment and I found myself feeling the excited tourist, grinning to myself as I meandered towards Friedrichstrasse feeling grateful and mindful.
“Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another.” Nelson Mandela