Students Writing on their Experiences in Berlin
Yesterday we visited the Jewish Museum, a marvel of architectural and sculptural embodiment of Jewish history and experiences. Below are some pictures from that visit.
The journal entries below will give you a good sense of our curriculum, and what the students are learning, as they apply and work to understand Berlin as a "city at war" experientially, emotionally, and intellectually.
On Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp Visit
Today we saw the site of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. We were led on a guided tour through what remained of the original structures, as well as recently erected buildings housing exhibits about the events that transpired there. Alright, so I've just been staring at my screen for a solid ten minutes trying to figure out how to detail my experiences in academic writing, and at this point I don't think I can. It's one thing reading about atrocities in a book or at a museum, where you can intellectually process the death and suffering from a safe distance. It's another thing entirely to go to the site where these things happened. It's one thing to read about how the Nazis dehumanized and mistreated those in their captivity, but it's another to see flowers placed in a solitary confinement cell in commemoration of the man who died in there. It's one thing to read about how tightly the Nazis closely monitored and controlled all communication, but it's another to read a postcard written by a captive student assuring his parents that he was surviving – thriving, even – inside the concentration camp. It's one thing to read about the cold efficiency that the Nazis utilized in their pursuit of racial extermination, but it's another thing to see the architecture of the buildings they created and recognize the explicit choices made in their design to facilitate mass murder in the quickest, cleanest way possible. I'm not saying that one needs to see a concentration camp with their own eyes in order to understand the plight of those who suffered there – similar forms of persecution are still being enacted to this day. I recognize that I am uniquely privileged to be able to visit such a place to begin with – to be able to more clearly understand a kind of suffering that I most likely will never be in danger of experiencing. The question, as it stands, is what to do with this privilege. The past exists absolutely; it cannot be changed, only more fully understood. Now that I have found this new kind of understanding, I know that I can't allow myself to forget this feeling that I have right now, for the sake of those who are targeted and persecuted today.
On the rather distant outskirts of Berlin, where acres of forest and leafy green suburbs persist, also stands a site that’s presence and historical significance bares no relation. This is the cringeworthy and tragic sight known as Sachsenhausen. Over half a century ago, this sight was home to some of the most bizarre and wicked human behavior in all recorded history, which in its simplest form can be referred to as Nazi Imprisonment, or better yet torture. On these grounds, outcasts of all sorts, on religious, political, or any other basis, were sent to endure long painful deaths. Humans being seen and treated as even less than scum, subject to constant beatings and whippings, constant work and labor, not to fulfill any purpose, but to kill them off ever slowly and painfully. The only purpose these souls could serve was as experiments, for new lines of shoes, being purposely fitted on improperly to inmates to impede their torturous lives even more. They were also known as medical experimentations, being used to the advantage of medical discovery and testing of newly concocted medicines, as the effects of what could happen to them couldn’t matter less to the perpetrators. Today, little remains of this sinister sight, just some run down walls, an old deteriorating guard house, a rugged field of gravel, overgrowth, and large rectangles were the cabins used to be, of only a few still stand, and host a museum of the horror that had unfolded and continuously lurks on these premises. Perhaps the most noteworthy ruins that remain are those of the torture chambers, and the incinerators that were used to routinely clean up the bodies of those who had been murdered. Although little remains of this sight, the atrocities that unfolded here remain, riddling and shaking nearly everyone to the core who passes though today.
On my first trip to Berlin during the summer of 2014, my parents and I traveled to the Jewish museum to learn more about the events of the Holocaust and the treatment of Jewish people over the years. The information detailing the event made me ill, but there was an artistic piece which made me sick. It was a narrow white hallway filled to the brim with iron plates which had faces welded into them. If you choose to walk on the plates, it’ll let out a loud unpleasant banging noise. In sense, I think the artist wanted to give the person the experience of walking on a sea of corpses. I had almost overwhelming feelings of anger, sadness, and remorse while walking on top of those metal masks. Four years later this feeling resonated with me when I visited Sachsenhausen, a Nazi concentration camp. Except instead of this sensation lasting the length a person views an art exhibit, it lingered for close to three hours.
It was a blistering hot day when I visited the campsite. Our tour guide would stop to show us areas that were used for torture or to give a false sense of hope for the prisoners which the Nazis took advantage. The guide explained to us the Nazis would sometimes dress up as doctors before executing a prisoner, to give false comfort that they'll be receiving legitimate treatment. Throughout the day I would eat and drink whatever I packed while listening intently. I realized after leaving Sachsenhausen all the forms of comfort we take for granted and could easily be provided; the prisoners can’t receive. Just to be out there in the blistering heat without any water and being part of round-the-clock torture is a horrifying thought. When the weather gets chilly, the prisoners won't receive the equipment to stay warm or survive the cold; still, they have to forcefully work.
I am very glad I had this experience. It’s important for me, as a Jew, to have a sense of what happened. I will never understand what it was like to live in Berlin during that time, nor do I want to. It affected me in a semi-personal way since these are people who I am partly related to and risked everything to be non-conformists. They didn’t deserve this horrifying treatment; nobody does. I read an article a couple of days ago, towards the end of it the author asks the question "would you take your kids to this event"? I personally would, but only if that person wanted to. If my kid wanted to then I’d take them to the camp. The Holocaust happened because of one man's vision to annihilate multiple different races, religions, and ethnicities; there was no point in killing torturing these people. The Nazis could have used all their resources to win the war, but instead, chose to waste it on unnecessary evil. People need to gain more of an understanding of this horrible event; to make a conscious effort to prevent this from reoccurring at this large of a scale.
Today for the first time in my life I went to a Concentration Camp. I had only read about them and/or studied their purposes in books and documentaries but not seen one in person. I visited the Sachsenhausen camp today and it felt like time stood still and my thinking capacity broke. One could only imagine that place 70+ years ago when Nazi Germany was a way life for average Germans and more than a nightmare for Jews, Slavs, and others that were undesirable. Seeing the camp today, there weren’t as many structures still standing since its liberation by the Soviet Army in the last days of the war. I didn’t know how far the SS would torture their “sub humans” physically and psychologically. For example, the SS would have Jehovah Witnesses cook their meals because of their passive attitudes toward violence and brutality. Another example would be keeping the voltage of the fence low where it would be hard for prisoners to use it as an easy way of suicide. It all made sense when there would be a person block and an infirmary in the camp and the reasons for using them were far from the realities and meanings of today. The memorials left behind by the German Democratic Republic (GDR) only give recognition to the communist political prisoners that suffered at the camp, not anyone else. Seeing the exhibits and the markings of where the gallows, barracks, and the remains of the gas chambers were was indescribable because you have the gut feeling that people were severely tortured and malnourished. When leaving the complex, I almost felt good to get out of there because the area was a memorial to those who died, suffered, and barely made it out to tell a tale. Learning new ways of how the SS did their business in the camps was certainly new for me and very sickening too. My grandfather was at Dachau and snapped a photo of the human remains which probably smelled indescribable.
Wandering through the Gate
Being sick at the best of times is a pain in the rear end. What makes it especially irksome is when you are sick while doing something you want to do. Most people have the sense though to take it as easy as possible and hope to get better soon and be able to function at full capacity. Normally I do abide by this. However, I could not resist the chance to see the Victory Gate. The gate itself is meant to mimic the gates to Athens and they do have a Greek feel. On one side of the gate there is a carving of Athena and Aries, the 2 Greek war gods. I am sure on a normal day it is possible to look straight through the arch to the victory tower. However today was not a normal day, and not just because of my head cold. The FIFA world cup is worshipped as much as American football in the states. In order to commemorate the cup there was a massive TV screen blocking the gate along with a ferris wheel in the middle of the street connecting the gate to the tower. This had several effects, the most important of which at least from my perspective is it showed how Berliners use the gate, and what significance the gate holds for them. The gate, from what I could tell, is a unifying symbol for Berlin-- perhaps in part because it is so close to the old east/west divide. Perhaps it is because of the famous Reagan “tear down this wall” speech. Maybe it is just because it is near the government centers and as a result is fairly centrally located. Whatever the reason, looking around you see a rich tapestry of the different people living in Berlin: old, young, rich, poor, German, non-German, Jews, Christans, Muslims, and many more besides. The Victory gate was not just rich in the complicated history of Berlin, but also is a center of history in the making.
East Side Gallery
During the weekend most of us went to see the remains of the Berlin Wall's East Side art gallery. When we went to the Berlin wall it was amazing to look at, not just because of the art but the fact that a giant wall once separated the city and country in two and we were on the communist side imagining what it was like for some people to live there and escape to the other side of the wall. When we were looking at the art gallery we saw how there were many pieces of art such as the most famous one of the two east block leaders kissing, from what I had heard it was the most popular picture in the gallery-- everyone was taking pictures of the painting. While we were there some of us were almost scammed by some con artists asking for a donation and others got conned by some of the street gamblers; this serves as a lesson to be learned not to trust everyone you meet so easily. It was a good thing the teachers were there and my dad giving me some advice in handling with my money when out and about in the city. What I like most about the East side gallery is how lively it was despite it being an almost oppressive prison environment where there were guards and barbed wire preventing people from escaping. When that comes to mind I think of a colorless, gray-like environment not a colorful art gallery defying everything the wall once stood for by making it the opposite. I enjoyed this trip and I highly recommend it to anyone who is traveling to Berlin.
This weekend has been really good. In fact, it has been full of both entertainment and fascination. I have been able to get lots of exercise and sleep, and have gone on some pretty good trips as well. The one that we went to on Saturday, to the East Side Gallery, was the best of them. I saw all kinds of designs as I walked down that street. What was really fascinating about them to me was how they all seemed to show different styles. Some were abstract, some had random shapes, and some… I just could not figure out at all. It was like I was feeling a variety of feelings from each piece of graffiti. However, some of these works of art did have some pictures that I could (and did) understand, and those were my favorite ones to see during this trip. There were pieces of art that referenced many famous people and characters from cartoons and comics. This includes a pokeball from Pokemon, Albert Einstein’s face surrounded by numbers and fractions, and even Batman and the Joker. I am not sure why there were pictures of those kinds of things in some of the pieces of artwork, but I do know that it warmed my heart to see it. It kind of felt like I was seeing representations of things the artists loved, or something. I probably feel this way because I tend to draw that kind of stuff as well. Nevertheless, this was a great weekend trip overall, as I got to see all kinds of designs in these masterpieces. I just hope I can go back there soon and see them again.
On Saturday, June 23rd, a few of us went to see the East Side Gallery, a 1.3 kilometer remnant of the Berlin Wall that has become a protected site for murals and street art. This particular section became a canvas for street artists soon after the wall came down in 1989, but it became an official gallery a year later, and was granted memorial status the year after that. The works themselves are fascinating – I found some to be genuinely beautiful, others to be piercingly tragic, and others still to be ... avant-garde. (The image of Scrooge McDuck appears twice in one work; the possible meaning behind such an artistic decision eludes me.) However, on reflection, what has stuck with me the most isn't necessarily the works themselves, but rather the nature of their existence as a part of the Berlin Wall, a stark symbol of Cold War tension. By choosing to utilize the wall as a canvas, these artists, conscientiously or otherwise, invoke all the context contained in the wall itself in their work. In some cases, the artists incorporate this history into the text of their work, depicting scenes of liberation and freedom in celebration of the destruction of a symbol of oppression. Other works utilize the wall and its destruction as a background element in a postmodern tableau – a piece in a cognitive, artistic puzzle. In any case, the entire gallery was an experience that strongly resonated with me on many levels. I highly recommend it.
Topography of Terror
I found the display of information and architecture at the topography of terror today quite effective. For one the grounds surrounding the main building are stark and rough with gravel and pathways. It almost seems like a no man’s land. The building itself has an odd feeling to it. It is of metal bar and mesh construction. I’m not sure if this was intentional or the properties of mesh but the whole building looked like static. Once inside, the information is displayed in a clear and concise yet unrelenting way. The information was well organized and I appreciated the step by step nature of reading the material. The boards the information is on are suspended and sway from people walking by and leaning. This with the addition of the content made me slightly sick and anxious, I feel this is good experiential museum design. I enjoyed the amount of reading it seemed appropriate for such a museum. I liked the good mix of primary sources(pictures), primary sources(documents), and writing.
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
I walked around a lot a few days ago, and I found a memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe and it hit me like a ton of bricks. Although I did not go to the area with the names of the Jews murdered within it (the area for that was underground and my foot was killing me and so I was going to try and rest after that), the area was still overwhelming. There were thousands of stone slabs that looked like coffins. I knew that it must have only been a small fraction of the amount of Jews killed and it hit me very hard due to the fact that it was a visual representation. Another thing that struck me was how it was almost cold. There were a few trees throughout but it was otherwise just rows and rows of these slabs, oriented the exact same way, which made it seem even more unfeeling and sterile an environment.