I’ve just been through two days of the most intensive history lesson I’ve ever had in my life. Berlin is a city with more in its past than any city where I come from, and it’s an exhausting, rewarding place to visit.
When the bus first rolled into Berlin and stopped outside of the CityStay hostel, I was a bit jaded. This was the vibrant, up-and-coming European city that everyone was raving about? It looked a little bit industrial and lacked the glamour of Paris or the cleanliness of Amsterdam. But I think a ten-hour drive on very little sleep can alter your perspective, no matter how comfortable the bus seat is.
On the first full day in the city, several people from the hostel joined a free walking tour. This went a long way towards changing my snap judgment on Berlin. Standing on top of the bunker where Hitler committed suicide can do that to a person. Follow that up with the remnants of the Berlin wall, Checkpoint Charlie, and numerous stories about the divide between the East and West; for once, I didn’t feel like I was on a movie set.
The wall was shorter than I thought, thinner than I thought, and had more of an impact on me than I had expected. I remember being eight when it was torn down, and people carrying around little pieces of wall in velvet sacks, tokens from a world that most of them would probably never fully understand. I know it’s important to remember monumental historical events, but I’m not quite convinced that a piece of the Berlin Wall has a place in John Smith’s Chicago living room.
The next day I went to Sacshenhausen Concentration Camp. You won’t find any photos on my page; I debated, and people made very valid points about whether or not cameras were appropriate, but in the end it wasn’t for me. We took a train out to the camp, and our guide led us on the same walk the prisoners took. It was rainy and chilly, but I realized that I had more layers on than they would have, and I would have the chance to return when I was finished. Complaining about getting wet in an old concentration camp doesn’t make much sense.
It was eerie, walking through the reconstructed barracks, cells, and the infirmary where unethical doctors performed unnecessary surgeries. The guide led us around the camp for about three hours, explaining what everything was for and what happened there. I had to stop paying attention when she stood in front of an old gallows and told us about how they were used on the completely innocent prisoners. We have all heard the stories, but the intensity of standing in the spot where they happened is almost too much. Then you remember that the prisoners didn’t have the option of saying ‘enough,’ and you remember again that you have nothing to complain about.
Other people took photos; they took photos of everything. The sound of digital camera shutters were constant, as people eagerly zoomed in on the gas chambers, operating tables, and body cellar. I know that these pictures can serve an educational purpose, but somehow I suspected that many of these were going to end up in a photo album – “My Trip to Berlin,” and shown as bragging rights.
Enough. I’ll climb off my soapbox.
Berlin turned out to be brilliant. I don’t honestly know if I’ll go back, but I can definitely say I won’t forget it.
Sitting now in Prague, completely wiped out after a long day of travelling and sleeping on the coach. Tomorrow I’m on to Cesky Krumlov, a town with a reputation for being a mini-Prague, where I’m going to take it easy for a few days before heading on to Vienna. Berlin nightlife and a good night’s sleep don’t exactly go hand in hand…more about that experience later.