Berlin – a bleak history, an enlightening city

Well our travel day would be a long one. We booked a 6 hour train journey from Amsterdam to Berlin. Even though we technically lost a day having this one as a travel day, it was both cost effective and easy. When planning your travels, always take into consideration your travel days. Looking back now, we probably could have taken a night train to Berlin instead of wasting a day for travel. But hey, ya live and learn!

The train journey wasn’t that bad actually. It didn’t seem like 6 hours…anyway, we arrived in Berlin fairly late in the evening. Central Station Berlin is amazing in its architecture. It’s Europe’s largest train station and it’s quite an experience. Sandra and I managed to make our way to the main door when we stopped in at the visitor info booth to pick up a discount card Chloe had told me about. We also booked tickets for the Hop on Hop off bus tour of the city. The next two days would be packed full of sight-seeing and history. We were both excited to get started!

Day 1

Today started early as we wanted to catch the first Hop on Hop off bus of the day. We asked the guy at our hostel where we could find it, and he gave us directions. It was a crisp morning walk. The air definitely had a bite to it. We weren’t used to the temperature being below 20 degrees celsius. Burrrrrr….

Our bus arrived and our tour began! We jumped off at Brandenburger Tor to see the Holocaust Memorial. At this spot though, the wall once stood in front of the archway. You wouldn’t know it to see it though. What’s remarkable about this spot is the blocks off to the right. We wandered over to check them out. It’s the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The 2700 stele blocks cover about 19 sq. miles in a grid like fashion. You can walk into them from any side. They range in height. It’s really quite a sight to see. It drew us in from the bus when we turned the corner.

There’s also a subterranean information centre that gives visitors an overview of the national socialist terror policy during the years 1933 and 1945. It’s definitely worth seeing! Admission is free, so there really isn’t any reason not to go inside! What was most interesting, and what hit me emotionally, was the ‘Room of Dimensions.’ You walk into this room from the Foyer. Lit up from the floor are letters, excerpts from diaries, notes and goodbye letters from the millions of victims in camps. It is unbelievably sad reading the last words of someone to their family. I could not imagine what terror they saw or how they endured so much of it. Many of them knew they were going to die, and you sense that in these excerpts. And yet, they remained strong and hopeful in such a tragic time. Word of warning: bring tissues.

We made our way back to the bus stop to pick up the next tour. We passed back and forth over the bridge from Former Berlin. We drove by the Embassy Quarter, many of which were post war because barely anything survived the war. The Italy Embassy still had bullet holes in the facade of their building. The next point in which we jumped off the bus was at Checkpoint Charlie. I’m so glad we went to the museum because I had no idea of the stories about this place. It was fascinating how many people tempted fate and tried to sneak past this checkpoint unseen. The stories are incredible. It is definitely a must see when you visit Berlin! I think the line went… “Creativity saves lives…”

From Checkpoint Charlie we walked back to a site called The Topography of Terror. Yea, it sounds intense because it is. This is a name given to its modern day site. Between 1933 and 1945, this spot was where the most important institutions of the Nazi apparatus of terror and persecution were located. That included: The Gestapo, Reich Leadership & Security Service and the Reich Security Main Office. It’s an intriguing place to be sure. There is an exterior tour which includes parts of the Berlin Wall, and an information centre inside with photos and documentation of what happened in this site.

Next up was a quick and cheap lunch before we picked up the bus to continue our tour. I love these Hop on Hop off tours (as I’ve mentioned before). They give such a great overview of a new city! We eventually ended our tour where we began it at the Statue of Neptune and the BT Tower. The guy at our hostel said the Statue of Neptune was a hideous looking fountain — I do not agree. It’s pretty in its own right!

To end off our day, Sandra and I went for a walk which led us right to the shopping mall….whoops! We spent a little too much money, so we quickly left! Back to the hostel, we managed to do some laundry and eventually got some shut eye. Tomorrow would be  great day as we were heading out of town to visit a nearby concentration camp. Since we had to cut Krakow and Auschwitz-Birkenau out of our original travel plans, we were content with finding a camp near Berlin.

Day Two

Another early morning after a sleepless night. I cannot wait to get back to my bed back home! It’s been a long, long 9 months of uncomfortable sleeping arrangements.

Today I visited Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. It sits about 45 minutes outside of Berlin city centre. The gloomy weather set the tone for a sombre visit to such a tragic spot in history. It was here that over 200,000 people were imprisoned during the reign of the Nazis. This wasn’t an extermination camp like Auschwitz, but rather a prison for those the Gestapo called ‘political enemies of the national socialist regime.’ People were also sent here for social, biological and racial reasons. That didn’t mean that people didn’t die here though. Many prisoners lost their lives at this camp and in some pretty violent ways.

It is surreal standing in the middle of this camp. To know what happened here is heartbreaking to me. Walking through the same gravel walkways as many people did before me and those who walked to their death….it’s an incredibly sombre moment.

I can’t imagine what life was like here. I can read everything this museum can throw at me, but I haven’t a clue what the feeling was like here. This may not have been a camp where mass murders happened on a daily basis, but it is a place and a time in history that should never have happened.

Each building I went into I ended up shaking my head with shock. Just when I think things couldn’t have gotten worse for these people, another story highlights the cruelty of the human spirit. It was a time in history that I just don’t understand how one man’s idea came to such a terrible reality. I understand why people held onto Hitler and his ideas, it was such a desperate time for Germany back then and he promised them things that gave them hope for a better future. It was a dark time then and despite the good Hitler promised his people, the darkness would only get worse.

Visiting this camp was quite an experience. I never thought I’d get the chance to see something like that. It puts things into perspective. If tomorrow was my last day, what kind of note or letter would I leave behind?

I leave Sachsenhausen feeling heavy hearted, but grateful to be living in this day and age. I realized then that Sandra and I barely spoke during our visit in the camp. But how do you carry on a normal conversation in such a wicked place? You just can’t. Every space I visited it felt wrong to speak. In silence I indulged in all the information I read and paid my respects to those who died here. Word of warning: never visit sites like this when feeling low or blue. It’s not an uplifting experience visiting a camp knowing the devastation that claimed so many lives.

Well two short days in Berlin were gone. If I could suggest anything, stay longer in Berlin! There are so many things we couldn’t do because of time! We took that chance because we wanted to see the camp instead of touring the city a second day. I could have stayed a whole week though!

Tomorrow is another travel day, and one of our last too! Our Euro Blitz is quickly coming to an end! Our last city on our tour is Prague. We have just a short 4 hour train journey, which seems like nothing compared to the 6 hour one we had earlier on this trip.

Stay tuned for breathtaking city views, a hot summer day and tourist traps!

Until next time…

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