Best of Berlin with MJH, pt 1

East Side Gallery

Having Matt here right at the end of my Berlin stay means that I get to revisit all my favorite places in Berlin and hit the last remaining high points before I jet out of town. Here are a few highlights from the past couple days:

1. Reichstag Building

The Reichstag dome is in my top 10 sites in Berlin. I love the green construction, the environmentally friendly solar panels and light reflecting mirrors, the curving walkways and the views over Berlin rooftops. I first visited this dome right after I came to Berlin so it was really interesting to see it again 5 weeks later, now that I know all the surrounding terrain and I have so many memories of visiting these sites.

Reichstag Dome Berlin

The dome requires advance reservations but after my last visit, I’d discovered a cafe on the roof of the Reichstag that serves breakfast and includes dome admission. Breakfast and tourism? Done and done.

The “feel good breakfast” was enormous and inadequately shown here

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It included meats, cheeses, smoked salmon, scrambled eggs, fruit salad, yogurt, several different kinds of bread, chocolate brioche, champagne, orange juice and coffee. Incredible! We ate on the glassed-in patio, which was a tiny bit like eating in a greenhouse once the sun came out; but we put on sunglasses, they opened some doors for airflow and the food was delectable.

Thus fortified, we moved on to

2. War memorials

This memorial in front of the Reichstag is a very small unassuming monument to the 96 politicians of the Weimar Republic who opposed Hitler. They were the first men he sent off to concentration camps, where all of them died.

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Each stone is engraved with the man’s name, his political party, the concentration camp where he died and the date of his death. It’s not much in the way of recognition but at least there’s acknowledgement that some good men tried to stand up to the tide of evil that swept Germany. They died for it but I hope they knew their sacrifice wasn’t completely in vain. Had Hitler had their help, he might have succeeded.

We revisited the Memorial to the Murdered Jews, which was just as powerful the second time around. I’ve written about it here.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews

This is the Memorial to the Sinti and Roma of Europe, a few of the gypsy tribes that Hitler tried to exterminate.

Memorial to Sinti and Roma in Europe

It’s a small reflecting pool in a secluded spot with part of the poem Auschwitz around the sides. Subtle, quiet and lovely.

Memorial to Sinti and Roma of Europe

On the other hand, the Memorial to the Homosexuals Persecuted under Nazism in Tiergarten looks like a peep show.

Memorial to the Homosexuals Berlin

Inside that concrete box is a beautiful film of people kissing, which we viewed through the one window. I like the sentiment of the film but wish the whole memorial were designed differently. I feel that the memorial promotes what it’s trying to fight against, the idea that gay love should be hidden. I’m glad there’s a memorial but… I could wish for something a little less closeted.

3. Tempelhof

This massive space used to be an airport.

Tempelhof Berlin

Several important airlifts were made from this airport during the war. The hanger had been on the list of largest buildings on earth with the world’s smallest duty free shop – an intriguing contrast – as well as one of Europe’s few airports that predate WW2. It closed in 2008 and now it’s a park

Templehof Berlin

Where people kite board down the former runways

Tempelhof

And skateboard, and bike and have picnics and sports rallies and occasionally festivals. As you can see from the skies, we brought the rain, which hit while we were in the middle of that massive space nowhere near any shelter. We had to run for it but then we were treated to a glorious double rainbow

Tempelhof

I bet Tempelhof is fantastic in the summer. I had visions of a picnic here but the weather hasn’t cooperated. Next time…

4. Chocolate

Ritter Sport is the German chocolate of choice.

Ritter Sport Berlin

It’s not boutique but it definitely has variety with 30+ regular options and then new flavors and combinations released every season. I’m not a huge chocolate fan but when I heard about the Ritter-Sport Bunte SchokoWelt where I could mix my own chocolate bar, I had to try it.

Ritter Sport Bunte ShokoWelt

This little shop has a long counter with dozens of mix-in varieties of fruit, cookies and candy

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Each custom bar costs 3.90E. I chose my chocolate (dark) and added three mix ins –  sour cherry pieces, cocoa nibs and crunchy candy gold stars. 30 minutes later, Ritter Sport!

Ritter Sport custom bar

This store has a lot of Ritter Sport at good prices as well as a small chocolate museum with a few interactive bits, a video and photo ops

Ritter Sport Kaitlyn

Ritter Sport MJH

As well as an ice cream bar where they make German style blizzards, You pick your Ritter Sport flavor and they’ll crush it into soft serve ice cream and serve it to you in a cone.

Ritter Sport Bunte SchokoWelt

For people who think too much chocolate is not enough chocolate, I highly recommend Ritter Sport Bunte SchokoWelt.

5. When in Berlin, you should go up a tower for an aerial view

Victory Column

I dragged Matt up the 284 steps of the Victory Column in Tiergarten because European trips always include tower climbs.

Tiergarten Berlin

As with the Reichstag, it’s so different to look over this city now after living here almost 6 weeks. The landscape looks so familiar.

We then went about our day and at the end of it found ourselves in Alexanderplatz under the TV tower

TV Tower Berlin

I’d written – somewhat scornfully… – about this tower before about how it’s a big deal but I didn’t get it and how it costs 12E to go up the tower. Well, it’s a big deal because it’s the tallest thing in town and the tallest thing in the country of Germany. It actually costs 11E to go up the tower – pardon! – and it was approaching sunset when we got there so we decided to check out the view.

View from Berlin's TV Tower

Beautiful, although Berlin doesn’t have much in the way of a skyline. Given the swampy ground it’s built on, big tall buildings don’t stand much of a chance. While waiting for the sun to set we got a glass of wine at the bar

TV Tower Berlin

and met delightful Eloise from Dublin

TV Tower with Eloise

And stayed much longer than we’d intended. Which is how all good nights go.

The TV Tower does have great views over Berlin and going up inside is much like visiting the Empire State Building, the London Eye or Chicago’s Willis Tower. There’s nothing quite like an aerial view over a city so it’s almost always worth a visit. I like the old school Victory Column but the TV Tower has kitschy charm as well.

Ok, more tomorrow. I’m off to enjoy my last day in Berlin!

Best of Berlin with MJH, Part 2 is here

Sachsenhausen Death Camp

Sachsenhausen Germany

I’ve been putting off this trip. In fact, if Matt hadn’t come to visit, I probably would have avoided it all together. Having chosen to live briefly in Germany and explore their history, I did feel an obligation to visit a concentration camp but I just never wake up and think “this feels like a good day to explore death, torture and cruelty all day.” It’s an easy thing to put off, is what I’m saying.

Sachsenhausen Germany

However, Matt really wanted to go and yesterday was our one chance so we went to Sachsenhausen, the first concentration camp built by Heinrich Himmler in 1936 and the architectural model for all future camps. This memorial and museum site lives about an hour north of Berlin in Oranienburg where a little town thrives on the outskirts of this former death camp. I’m not sure how people can live that close to something this grim but I guess humans can become indifferent and detached to just about anything given enough time.

Sachsenhausen Germany

The gates are chilling. Arbeite mach frei means “works sets you free,” a particularly cruel joke for a work camp. Himmler initially designated this camp as a “work camp” because unlike Auschwitz, for instance, where people were sent primarily to be exterminated, this camp was intended for making bricks to rebuild Berlin and counterfeiting massive amounts of British and American currency to try to crash our respective economies and help Hitler win faster. The crematoriums, execution chambers and morgues came later when the medical experimentation started and the overcrowded conditions led to more and more deaths.

I walked through this site and saw things like these wash basins

Sachsenhausen Germany

And these prison cells

Sachsenhausen Germany

And this “neutral zone” by the fence where prisoners were summarily shot if they stepped foot, until of course too many prisoners decided to commit suicide by guard and then the guards stopped killing them and started just maiming them.

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And I can’t get it. I literally can’t wrap my mind around the idea that an entire first world country devolved into evil this deep and dark. Of course Hitler was the tip of that spear but thousands, possibly millions, of men and women worked for him, carried out these atrocities and allowed themselves to be dragged (or willingly jumped) into this swamp of corruption.

I see this vast empty landscape where once there were barracks and prisoners and torture and blood and bodies and I wonder how the guards rationalized it.

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In my mind mass murder is one thing and torture is another. It’s one thing to believe that an entire chunk of people need to be eliminated. It’s another to imprison those people and torture them, perform medical experiments and keep them alive to perpetuate the pain. There certainly was no point at which the Nazis treated their prisoners as POWs who might one day attain their freedom. The Nazis always expected to wipe them them out so these camps simply prolonged the misery to very little actual gain. That means that for 10 years these SS guards got out of bed every day and spent a solid 12 hours doing their best to drive these people to the brink of death while still wringing some capable labor out of them. It’s unimaginable. Even standing in the middle of that field, I can’t get there.

The Soviet army liberated this camp in 1945, making them for one brief moment “the good guys” in Eastern Germany. The clock on the tower is frozen at 11:07, the moment of liberation.

Sachsenhausen Germany

I was so emotionally moved by this visit but not in the ways I expected. I came away wondering how many guards in this camp hated their lives. How many woke up every day wishing they could quit or leave without abandoning their families or ending up a prisoner. And how many others loved every moment.

Everything this big gets starts small. An insidious trickle of evil assisted by men, like this bookkeeper of Auschwitz, who go along with it despite what they believe to be their best efforts and then become a cog in a huge overwhelming killing machine. There were so many points were people could have said No but they didn’t.

May we always remember this horror so we never get here again

Sachsenhausen Germany