I started my week in Berlin with a walking tour of the centre. Free tours commence every day, meeting at Alexanderplatz at 11am. This introduction to the city focuses on its incredible history with stops at the site of Hitler’s bunker, the holocaust memorial, checkpoint Charlie and the Berlin wall. My first impressions were of a city which has rebuilt itself, but is still burdened with a horrific past. As far as cities go, Berlin is pretty unique in its atmosphere. The streets can be almost eerily quiet as the city is geographically vast and open. Despite being a huge city, Berlin’s central attractions are neatly compact and we are able to see a lot of the sites in one tour. The holocaust memorial consists of towering blocks of concrete which increase in height as you walk between them over wavering ground. The artist didn’t explain the meaning of the work but as you walk through the towering stacks of concrete you can’t help thinking of the unfathomable number of lives lost to war. The only solace is the light which peaks through the gaps between the blocks, like a light at the end of the tunnel.
The holocaust memorial site sparked an interest in the plight of the Jewish population of Berlin during the war and we decided to visit Sachsenhausen, the concentration camp just north of the city on the second day. Amidst a population which is so open about its past, appreciating the importance of remembrance is an essential part of visiting Berlin. The tour met again at Alexanderplatz and traveled for 40 minutes out of the city to the Sachsenhausen memorial and museum site. This tour costs 15 euros and the fee goes towards supporting the site, a very worthy cause. On first entering the site we took a long walk down an open path and stopped at a sign which addresses the German police and reminds them of the importance of human rights, the sole take away from the atrocity of mass genocide being that at least it will be a constant reminder of the devastation we are capable of inflicting on others. Interestingly our tour guide pointed out that the first nation to use concentration camps were the British during the Boer War imprisoning Dutch settlers in South Africa.
We entered the prisoners’ camp through tower A and immediately the size of the camp was overwhelming. The wide open spaces which were once filled with victims emphasise the extent of the horror. To our right, the tour guide stopped us at a sign indicating the ‘neutral zone’, an area on the outskirts of the camp which prisoners would be immediately shot dead in if they were to enter it. Our tour guide told us here about the first prisoner to die in the camp who was forced into entering the neutral zone when an officer commanded that he retrieve his hat. Next we entered a barrack and viewed the empty cells, some containing flowers in remembrance of the dead. At the other side of the barrack we viewed a post which the prisoners would be strung up on until their ligaments ripped. The next building showed how over 400 men would be crammed into one room to wash and in some cases forced into tiny rooms until they suffocated.
The rest of the site consisted of museums filled with the artifacts and photographs collected to memorialise what happened here. A great statue has been built in the middle of the camp with 18 red triangles representing the 18 countries from which the victims were taken. Finally we entered station Z (ironically named by prison officers) the final stop for the victims of Sachsenhausen. Here the foundations of the gas chambers have been preserved thanks to a survivor who testified to the importance of maintaining and remembering those who lost their lives here. A monument shows three prisoners struggling to support each other and reads ‘den opfern des kz Sachsenhausen in memory of the victims of Sauchsenhausen concentration camp 1936-1945’.
As we leave the camp I can’t help feeling guilty that I am free to walk away when so many victims were not so fortunate.
After a couple of days of getting to grips with the history of the city, I was able to appreciate its beauty, diversity and complexity even more. Some of the greatest natural beauties within the city are the lakes which attract swimmers and sunbathers at this time of year. In the mid-August heat we swam in the fresh water and cycled through wooded areas in the undisturbed peace of Krumme Lanke.
The following day we visited Potsdam, a beautiful city on the border of Berlin. The markets and shops in these quaint cobbled streets highlight the inspiring architecture. Tiny cafes are hidden from the crowds in gardens behind shops, combining rural and urban. Unexpectedly, the peacefulness of our walk through these streets was broken by a protest against neo-Nazi campaigners. Coloured balloons were being handed out to show support for a diverse and colourful Germany and protesters joined together to drown out the propaganda of the neo-Nazi speakers. The picturesque setting clashes with the evident social conflict within modern Germany. After exploring the horrors of the Nazi regime in Sauchsenhausen the existence of neo-Nazis in the city and all over the world today is unbelievable.
On day six, in search of Berlin’s more alternative activities, we visited an abandoned airport for roller blading followed by hiring out a classic German Trabi car for a quick drive by the sights and ended the day salsa dancing at the Clärchens Ballhaus. The final day consisted of recovery from a long night out enjoying the laid back atmosphere which kept us out until the early hours of the morning. By evening time we managed to drag ourselves to Merle’s Roti and Rum for some authentic Caribbean food before an outdoor cinema screening of The Danish Girl, a perfectly chilled evening to end an inspiring week in Berlin.