Berlin: Liberation

19 December 2012
12:00 AM (so technically 20 December 2012)
Berlin, Germany

The entrance to the camp: "Work will make you free."

Prisoners would walk through these gates of Tower A into the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp: “Work will make you free.”

My Dear Piece of Home,

It’s AK’s birthday today! My friends surprised her with a drink from the bar (she’s 21 now!) and some gummy bears on the hostel lobby. I had the chance to meet her last week in London on the Harry Potter Studio Tour. Lovely gal 🙂 I’m quite blessed to be traveling with her.

Our morning began sombre. Quiet. We rode the S-bahn train an hour out to the small town of Oranienburg, made a tourist destination by the local Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. Sachsenhausen’s prison layout and organization system served as models for later camps such as Auschwitz. The farther we traveled from the city center, the foggier the sky became, the snow on the ground thicker. The bitter cold and snow of a German December day sharpened our empathy towards the victims of Nazi imprisonment. We were fighting the cold in ten layers and well-fitting shoes. These prisoners would daily have to wake up, fight to get ready, and line up on the semi-circular roll call ground–standing in the bitter cold, enduring blows and punishments, while wearing naught but blue-striped prisoner uniforms.

(Warning: I may talk about some graphic things in the paragraph below)

The unique triangular design of the Sachsenhausen Camp. As the audioguide put it, it was designed as "geometry of maximum control." The semicirucular area in front of the barracks is the appellplatz, or the roll call grounds.

The unique triangular design of the Sachsenhausen Camp. As the audio-guide put it, it was designed as “geometry of maximum control.” The semicircular area in front of the barracks is the appellplatz, or the roll call grounds.

Appellplatz.

Appellplatz.

Like the first time I visited the Holocaust Museum in DC, I wanted to vomit. Being in the same physical space where disgusting atrocities occurred… We walked through a prison wing where political prisoners were kept isolated from the rest of the camp. The tiny spaces and iron doors made you feel claustrophobic. Once you escaped outside to the open, however, you were greeted by three tall wooden poles from which people hung and were tortured. The worst was when we stepped inside a prison barracks reconstructed with original materials from the camp. In one room, the black paint was peeling off of the ceiling like dead skin. I felt like I was inside a human body, only the interior walls were deteriorating like a leper’s exterior. You don’t need to see the atrocities happen. The spirit of the buildings are enough to make you feel severely uncomfortable. Walking around the grounds, you truly understand that this concentration camp was the result of careful planning, building, and administration. Mass murder was systematic and even amusing to the SS officers who ran the camp. They named the collection of killing facilities (rooms to shoot people in the back of the head, hang them, or later, gas them) Tower “Z” because one entered the camp through Tower A and one would “leave” through Tower “Z.”

IMG_3371

The killing trenches next to Tower “Z”

There’s no need for me to list all the gruesome things I learned here. Walking silently through the gate and around the grounds of Sachsenhausen in an eerily foggy and bitterly cold morning drove the history of Nazi crimes home quite forcefully. Today we were free to leave that awful place and fill our cold and starving bellies with Chinese take out. But imagining having to face a Berlin winter wearing thin prisoner’s garbs in those thin wooden barracks, subsisting on meagre putrid root vegetable stew for the whole winter… at the mercy of sadistic guards… it was unfathomable.

Wash basins. Guards used to drown prisoners in the place where you wash your feet.

Wash basins. Guards used to drown prisoners in the place where you wash your feet.

(end of Sachsenhausen content)

Our day brightened considerably upon our return to Berlin. After the sun went down, we walked along the East Side Gallery, a gallery of graffiti on the East side of the longest surviving portion of the Berlin Wall. The graffiti was a way for international artists to express their bitterness toward the division as well as their joy and hope for liberation. Lining the River Spree, the East Side Gallery is a fantastic collection of street art sparking political debate. Whether or not they’re allowed to, visitors would leave their own opinions in response to the artists work. For example, a few Koreans wrote “Dokdo is our land” on a Japanese-themed graffiti installation.

The beginning.

The beginning.

We walked from the beginning of the wall near Worcester Strasse to its end near Ostbanhof Station. Afterwards, we returned to the Brandenburg Gate once more to visit the Reichstag, or the Bundestag, the seat of the German Parliament. Our point of interest was the glass dome atop the Reichstag, designed by Norman Foster, British architect, in the 90s. Not only does it boast spectacular panoramic views of Berlin, it provides a symbolic view over the seats of the German Parliament below. The structure itself has an interesting design–it’s completely open to the elements above and collects any precipitation in a steel cone

The top of the dome is open to the elements. The cone below the opening collects any precipitation that falls.

The top of the dome is open to the elements. The cone below the opening collects any precipitation that falls.

These mirrors are supposed to reflect natural sunlight into the building below. There is also a rotating sunshade covering one side of the dome to help manage the light.

These mirrors are supposed to reflect natural sunlight into the building below. There is also a rotating sunshade covering one side of the dome to help manage the light.

View of the German Parliament below.

Civilian oversight: view of the German Parliament below. “Dem Deutschen Volke”: For the German People.

For our last night in Berlin, we ate like kings. After debating whether or not to pay the 1 Euro fee into the Gendarmenmarkt, we were swayed by the strong recommendations of friends and tourists. The Gendarnmenmarkt was brighter and more beautiful than the market on Alexanderplatz and filled with more yummy goodies. I gorged on bratwurst twice, a raclette cheese toast once, and tried bits of my friends’ desserts and drinks. One surprise was my friend EC’s hot cherry cider with whipped cream on top. Using her own words, it was a mouthful of “liquid cherry pie in your mouth.”

The entrance to the Gendarmenmarkt. This Christmas market required a 1 Euro entrance fee, but we found the price to be worth the incredible quality of food inside.

The entrance to the Gendarmenmarkt. This Christmas market required a 1 Euro entrance fee, but we found the price to be worth the incredible quality of food inside.

Rostbratwurst. I had two that night.

Rostbratwurst. I had two that night.

Belgian waffles, raclette cheese with bacon on bread.

Belgian waffles, raclette cheese with bacon on bread.

From concentration camp to Christmas market gastronomy. Yet another intensely challenging, intensely educating, and intensely filling day in the city of Berlin. Alas today’s excursion in Berlin is to be our last. But not to fear, tomorrow I’ll be writing to you from Prague!

How’s winter over where you are right now? Surviving it all right? I miss you dearly–I wish I could send you bits and pieces of all the things I’ve eaten for you to try.

I’m all tuckered out now and have to catch and early morning bus again.

I’ll write to you again soon!

Love,

JJS

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