Our day started off at around 7:30 am. The buffet in our hotel was full of fantastic food (especially the coffee!!!!) which definitely helped everyone recover from the exhaustion from the day before. We first took a walking tour of different locations that were important during and after World War II. We walked past a building that had survived the war riddled with bullet holes. Our tour guide said that this was very common for World War 2 era buildings, because of the scope of the damage caused by the Battle of Berlin. This made me think a lot about how privileged we are in America, that every war we have fought in the past century has been away from our country. Walking further through the city and seeing the unbelievable transformation it has undergone just in the past few decades to become a modern, unified city amazed me.
Before coming to Berlin, I had never really thought about the magnitude of the Second World War and its effect on every single aspect of European life. Wartime in the US is often talked about as a difficult time, but the lives of most American citizens remained untouched. While my grandmother and grandfather lived very normal lives in the 40s, the grandparents of most Germans were either Nazis, or soldiers who lost their lives along with their City. This was emphasized in our second activity, where we met the grand-niece of Heinrich Himmler. She spoke about how Germans had a very difficult time confronting their past until the 80s and 90s, because for a lot of people the suffering and the horrible acts of World War 2 were experienced by their parents. I had never considered how difficult it must be to move on from such catastrophic and life changing events in such a short period of time.
Our third stop was a bomb shelter in Berlin that was meant for civilians during the war. I think that this stop affected the group more than they expected. Going down into the rooms that people were forced to stuff into during air raids and seeing how cramped and frightening they were reinforced the feeling of total chaos that this war had on the entire city of Berlin. It was a fascinating glimpse into the reality of citizens who were forced to confront the idea of death as a likelihood instead of as something far off in the distance. I gained a completely new admiration for the resilience of this city and it's people for the way that they have turned their modern, beautiful city into a functioning museum, serving as a constant reminder of the city's past without impeding the road towards the future.
I knew Berlin was going to be amazing, but Berlin exceeded my expectations. This city is not only beautiful but it also holds so much history, as we all know. Our day began with a breakfast that included the best croissant I have had in awhile and the fastest coffee I have ever seen being made from a machine. Needless to say, it was a great start to my morning.
After breakfast, we met with Arja Jacob, who was not only so knowledgable about the history of the Nazis in Berlin, but who also had a great sense of humor. She took us on a tour in order to show us some of the remnants of Nazi Germany (thank goodness it did not rain at all! It was actually such a beautiful day). It was so interesting to see places like the Propaganda Ministry because now we know the devastating effects of the decisions made there. Back then, however, many people did not know -- or chose to ignore -- what happened there. We also got to stand above Hitler's bunker, which is now a parking lot. When Arja was describing Hitler's four private rooms and bomb-proof shelter it greatly contrasted with what we later saw the civilian bomb shelter. We visited a lot of other buildings and I loved learning about the different history behind each building as we were actually learning about it.
Although it was sunny, it was pretty chilly and this was the perfect time to grab lunch. We went to the Mall of Berlin, which was a huge mall with an equally huge food court. Linh and I decided to try the currywurst, a German dish with a sausage covered in tomato sauce and curry powder. Despite how unusual it sounded, it was pretty good.
Next, we returned back to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Anja talked about how the memorial was a bit untraditional compared to different memorials like the World War II memorial or the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington, D.C. This memorial was a field of concrete boxes in various heights. People were climbing on it, sitting to rest on it, jumping across it, all while not even knowing what it was for. Although they might not have known what it was for, it was uncomfortable to see people sitting on the blocks let alone jumping across it joyfully as if it was a playground. Now, I understand that some people might have just stumbled upon it, not knowing the meaning behind it, but it was just sad to see that these people probably did not even try to learn more about the memorial. Nonetheless, it is a great memorial, and the museum is equally great. The wait to get through security was quite long, but I believe it was entirely worth it.
The most impactful room was the one filled with the letters that prisoners tossed out the window of their train wagons as they were being shipped out to different ghettos and concentration camps. The uncertainty was heartbreaking as specially looking at it from hindsight and learning about the fate of most of these people. The hope they continued to hold is just a testimony to the strength of the human will and of love. There was also a room telling the stories of families in different camps across Eastern Europe, following each member through their experiences at the camps. The way that they presented these stories really highlight now badly families were torn apart. Another room also was nearly pitched black and the only thing that can be heard is the names of Jewish victims of the Holocaust in Europe. When you sit in there, the names and lives of these people engulfed you. There were victims as young as 3 years old to victims much older. The museum was perfect for the memorial because it was perfect for just remembering and reflecting, something that is difficult to do as you walk through the actual memorial.
Then we went to hear Katrin Himmler talk. She is Heinrich Himmler's great-niece, and is someone who definitely faced her history. Instead of just dissociating herself from her family name, she chose to research all about Himmler and her family, and eventually wrote a book about it. I am so grateful I got to hear her speak because we often hear survivor accounts, which we learn a lot from, but it is important to hear the change in the other side. Katrin is an example of someone who is seeking change and showing us how we cannot creating that change from running away from our past.
As I mentioned before, we then took a tour of the civilian air-strike shelter. There, my group had a hilarious tour guide, who was from Denmark. This was an air-strike shelter, which meant it was not actually bomb-proof, although the Nazis ensured it was. Here, a lot of women and children stayed, but they were packed into a room, it was unhygienic, and often times they suffocated from the lack of oxygen. This tour reminded us who suffer the most: innocent civilians, which is very relevant to today. Of course some of these people probably supported the Nazis, but they were not the ones to create concentration camps and kill Jews, and what the faced afterwards if they survived is something that no one ever deserve to happen to them.
Finally, to end off this eventful day, we went to go get dinner in a neighborhood that was very hip and cool. It had a very free-spirited vibe and it was just fun to walk among locals who always seem to be smiling and laughing. Originally, I went to dinner with Linh and Clare, but Molly, Portia, and Jess all came into the same restaurant as us and joined us. Jess, Linh, and I bonded over how we had bio class together all year yet we did not even really know each other's names because Akeson never uses names in class and probably does not even know our names. Portia is in my facing class, but I rarely talk to her as well. Molly I did not even know before this trip, but it was so fun to have them all join us for dinner. We had a community plate where we all shared pieces of our dinner, so we had the chance to try everything on the menu. It has only been the second day, and Berlin has already treated us so well. If this is an indication of what the rest of the trip is going to be like, I am a thousand times more excited than I was before.
We started our day with a wake up call at 7 and then breakfast at the hotel. After that we left the hotel and walked around Berlin with the tour guide .
Many of the buildings we saw were from different eras of history in Germany and it was very interesting to see it all overlap. As we stood outside one of the old buildings of Berlin (the tour guide) pointed out bullet holes in the building and told us about the Russians invading Berlin and the "Volkssturm" (people's storm) army made up of 9-14 year olds as well as old people who Hitler sent to defend Berlin against the Russians in those final days. I was completely shocked to learn how young these people were. We also looked at the important role of propaganda under the Nazi regime. We saw the spot where the Propaganda ministry once stood. It is scary to think that a few people controlled most of the information the german people were getting, especially since the propaganda ministry was also in charge of education and all cultural institutions.
We saw a lot of other buildings of significance to the Nazi era as well and noted the particularly "fascist" architecture characterized by large size trying to instill a feeling of inferiority. We stood over the sight of Hitler's bunker which was such a strange experience. It is so weird to imagine all the things that happened in the places we were in, especially since these are events we have talked about in class and to really connect that to these places is just so surreal. It was really interesting to touch upon the Germans reacted after the war. (Tour guide) said that directly after the war many people claimed to have not known about what was going on, or they just claimed they were following orders. It seems that after that, around the 70s and 80s there started to be a sense of slow recognition, but Germany seemed to really start "facing that history" if you will, after the 90s.
It took a while but to see the amount of monuments and memorials and just general information about the holocaust all around Berlin was really incredible. In fact, in Germany it is illegal to deny the holocaust, do the heil, or show a swastika in public. Freedom of speech is not taken away by these laws, (our tour guide) explained, because these are fascist ideologies which go against democracy, thus it shouldn't be upheld by a democracy. In Germany there are memorials everywhere you turn. We visited the memorial for murdered Jews in the middle of Berlin and it was very strange but effective. It really called in to question the role of a memorial and commemoration versus art. But I thought that it was very effective since it puzzles people into thinking about who the memorial is commemorating.
Under the memorial was a museum that we visited after going to lunch in the Berlin mall which was divided into east and west with a quote from Obama about Berlin in the entrance. The museum was small but also effective.
Later we met with the grandniece of Heinrich Himmler which was a very interesting experience. I think we can learn a lot from her and the way she was willing to face the history of her family. She brought up a really relevant point that many people today in Germany feel very removed from this history they learn so much about it, and they don't realize that their grandparents or great grandparents were involved in this.
Another really eye opening thing we did today was visit the air raid shelter in Berlin. Interestingly they weren't called "bunkers" because they weren't actually bomb proof. It was shrapnel proof but if a bomb fell directly on it, the shelter would have blown up. It was another propaganda movement, because as long as the people felt safe and like their government was trying to protect them then they would be fine. In a tour of the shelter we also learned a lot about the experience of the Germans during the war.
As early as 1939 people were warned really able toit was like in our mindsearly as 1939 people were warned about a war and were made to feel like the rest of the world was their enemy. There was propaganda everywhere that made people feel as if war was the only choice. It was really strange to be in the shelter where people had been hiding from bombs many years ago. The guide we had there was incredible and she was really able to paint a vivid picture of what it was like in our minds. She told us how in the rooms there would be a candle on the floorl to tell if the oxygen had run out. It seems so unimaginable to have ever been in that situation. But she also brought up very relevant points pertaining to today, saying that in fact this shelter was a luxury because people in Aleppo have no where to go or hide. She made sure to remind us that these things are still happening today and it's not just history.
When the Russians came into Berlin it was absolutely horror. The amount of German women raped in that period is so insanely high. And in this invasion the target was truly the civilians. The German soldiers did similar things when they invaded Russia and all the Russians wanted now was revenge. It was really eye opening to see how the civilians experienced war and how the whole population was affected.
After a long day of history we were able to eat in smaller groups and look at the city of Berlin in its modern context. We returned to the hotel where I then finally slept after a long day. Goodnight!
Hello parents and friends of the Canadian Eastern Europe travelers!!
I have the extreme privilege of writing the blog post about the first day. So let's start from the beginning! Last night we all departed Logan at about 8:20pm. I had the middle seat in the middle row and got to sit next to Eddie and Mia. We all quickly learned that Lufthansa was an extremely amazing airline which provided 2 meals, snacks and drinks! On top of that, they had a stellar movie selection- I chose to watch La La Land before falling asleep.
We got to Munich at 9:30 am, which was only 3:30 am for you all back home!!! Let me just say, the Munich airport is beautiful!!! After laying over and having a great cup of German coffee, we took another flight to Berlin. This flight was only about an however, but I kid you not when I say that every single student was asleep! We then landed in Berlin and immediately boarded a bus to Wannsee Villa.
The Wannsee Villa is where Hitler and other important SS members made "the final solution" about what they should do with the Jews. The Villa was absolutely beautiful outside, along with a lot of all the other architecture in the area. Inside, there were a bunch of exhibitions about Nazi Germany- apparently the Wannsee Villa is a huge educational center in Germany. The room that struck me the most was the Quote room. There were quotes from holocaust survivors and Germans who stress the importance of telling the holocaust stories. There also were quotes from children and grandchildren of Nazi party members- one including Katrin Himmler, who we will talk to tomorrow. These quotes struck me the most because they discussed taking accountability for the Holocaust and having a responsibility to help spread the stories and accounts.
After soaking in those deep quotes, there was a beautiful garden in the back that I walked around in. I'm sure most of your kids took pictures so you have to see them!!!
We then went off to Mahnmal Gleis 17. This is an extremely powerful memorial in Berlin that tells the history of deportation of the Jews. The railroad tracks that were used to transport the Jews to the ghettos and concentration camps. Along the side there are dates of when trains departed, where their destination was, and how many Jews were on the train. This memorial was built by the railroad company, which in my opinion shows them taking some responsibility. I found some peace in knowing that the railroad company lets all the nature grow by itself on the tracks. There definitely are a lot of trees and flowers that surround the memorial.
Finally we went to the Bayerische Viertel which I found super cool. There were 2 artists who recently put up street signs with a picture and a law during the Holocaust. I thought that these were super cool and helpful so that everyday German citizens will never forget and that tourists are confronted with this history as well. I found that these street signs were in such clever locations. For example, we saw one with a play ground and the law was that Aryan and non-Aryan children could not play together; this was posted right outside of a children's park. There was another artist who came up with the Stolpersteine, which is the idea to commemorate someone who died in the Holocaust by putting a stone in the ground with their name, birthday, day of death and reason for death. There has been a lot of controversy with people living here and complaining about having to face this history. In my opinion, it doesn't matter. Germany has such history that, yes, it needs to be faced!!
To conclude, we went to a great dinner at Gustav and Gold. I had tomato soup, and then a fried mushroom and potato dumpling dish. It was really really good!
Ms. Freeman told me that you all were waiting for this blog post from the first day!! I hope it lives up to your expectations!! Comment and let me know what you think :-).
At 4 pm, we pulled into a road that led to a parking lot, to the right of us were rail road tracks. Before we got out we learned that this was the station the Jewish people were deported out of, sent to camps such as Theresienstadt and Auschwitz. Along the railroad track, in reverse chronological order were words and letters inscribed on different individual plate. Each plate representing a different date, it stated the number of Jewish people deported and the destination of the specific train. As we walked along the path, and the years became earlier and earlier, the number os Jewish increased from 28 to a staggering 1700 at its peak. As we got closer to the beginning, the number of Jewish people being deported remained constant, 100. The gray sky and rain reflected what we were all feeling, sadness.
We realized that this place was the last time they saw they're own homeland before being sent to the ghettos or a concentration camp. The trees and vegetation remain untrimmed as it grows longer and longer, serving as a reminder to everyone that it will never be used for trains to travel on again. Near the end of the dates, stones were piled up high, along with stones placed in a heart and a candle in the middle to remember those that were murdered while being forced to take the journey.
Today was a challenging day for many of us. Our plane landed in Munich around 9:50 and I can promise that none of us got our full 8 hours last night. Half asleep we walked through the airport to our next gate. German airports are far nicer and far cleaner than ours; some even believed we could eat off the floors. Fortunately, we were given the opportunity to go find food in the airport and did not have to eat off the floor!! This airport has far more REAL food than you would ever find at Logan and a lot of it actually looked really good.
Next we boarded our flight to Berlin. This one was far better than the first one as it was only about an hour. At this point most people were too tired to stay awake and slept through this flight. When we arrived Berlin we grabbed our luggage and got right on a bus to go see the Wannsee Villa.
The Wannsee Villa was where senior officials of the Nazi party met on January 20, 1942 to decide on the "final solution" for Jews in Germany, though Hitler had already made this decision and this conference took place solely to keep blame away from Hitler. This was very cool for all of us to see, considering that Tuesday in class Ms. Freeman had us watch clips from a movie showing this conference. It was very interesting to see it for ourselves.
Next we visited Mahnmal Gleis 17 (track 17). This is a train track where between fall 1941 and spring 1942 many Jews boarded trains to be taken to Ghettos or extermination camps. We were given sometime here to walk the tracks, which have a lot of overgrown plant life to ensure they are never used again.
Finally, we visited a really beautiful neighborhood, the type of neighborhood you could spend hours walking around. When we were there we spent a lot of time looking at Stolpersteine, which are cobblestone sized brass plated engraved with the name and dates of a victim of Nazi extermination. They are small and not easily noticeable, but soon you see many around the neighborhood.
We checked into our hotel and tried to fight off jet lag until dinner (not all of us were very successful). We ate a really good dinner right across the street from the hotel and now I believe all my classmates and I are ready to sleep!
I'm writing three days from our departure for Berlin and thinking about what you are all about to experience.
This is the 16th time I've led this trip and I have to confess: it never gets old. A student came in the other day and asked me which part of the trip I'm most looking forward to. After reflecting on the fact that no one had ever asked me that question, I replied that what I always look forward to is the reactions of students to what they are seeing. Their observations are consistently varied and always thoughtful. Given what's going on in the United States this year -- and in the bigger, broader world as well --I expect that this year the responses will be even more complex.
I'm always impressed with the willingness of students to give up what would otherwise be an April vacation and go to--let's face it--the remains of Nazi-controlled Europe, the remnants of the Cold War, and a complicated 21st century Central and Eastern Europe. These places--at least during those moments in history--are not exactly happy places. Now, at least as of this writing, Europe is in a significant period of transition (and we will see how this all turns out after all the election activity concludes) but it makes looking squarely at this history all the more timely.
After all, we are visiting sites of some of the most horrific acts mankind has committed. Auschwitz, as I said at the parent-student meeting, is the largest known cemetery in the world (with virtually all of its graves unmarked). How do we understand what mankind is capable of? And how do we try to prevent this sort of stuff from ever happening again? Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said, "Never again." Yet, as we know from Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, Cambodia, Darfur, the Congo, and most recently Syria, it does happen: again and again and again and again..
So what can we do about it?
That's our task while we are visiting some of most fascinating places in the world. We have to do the work to peel the onion and try to discover what Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic were in 1933, 1939, 1942, 1945, 1950, 1961, 1989, and now. Then we have to collapse all those years and understand what we learn from them.
To quote from the distinguished Boston Latin School alumnus, George Santayana '1878; "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
I'm looking forward to remembering--and reflecting on that history--with all of you beginning this Tuesday.