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Behold Berlin: Past and Present

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Behold Berlin: Past and Present

Our trip to Berlin this October, was a compilation of both unique and unforgettable cultural and educational experiences. The experiences that we gained over the course of our week in Berlin; from taking German public transport, eating local German food, to visiting sights like the Sans Souci Palace, the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, and the Wannsee House, gave us all a more in-depth understanding of not only our iGCSE and IB history syllabuses, but also of how immense an impact the history of Berlin has on those living there today, and how this impact has manifested itself in the most subtle of ways.

One of the places we visited was the Wannsee house. The Wannsee House, situated just outside of Berlin, was where, on January 20, 1942, several high-ranking Nazi Party and government officials of Germany and other Eastern European countries such as Poland and Latvia, gathered to discuss and organise the implementation of the ‘final solution of the Jewish question.’ The final solution outlined the systematic elimination of all Jews in Europe, an estimated 11 million lives with the potential to be killed, a resulting 11 million families shattered. Prior to this meeting, which was held with the utmost secrecy, there had already been a ‘death unit’, the Einsatzgruppen, killing all Jews that they could find, horrifically forcing them to dig their own graves and then shooting them. Anti-semitism has been around for thousands of years, built up from a multitude of reasons, such as Christians’ incomplete knowledge and resultant hatred of Judaism and envy towards the prosperity and wealth of Jews in certain areas. To many, including the Nazis, Jews were considered a race, not just a religion, something genetically different and inferior. In this conference, many horrific ideas were discussed as to how to ‘annihilate’ the Jewish race, one of which was death by natural cause through harsh forced labour in atrocious conditions. Another common method was the ‘evacuation of Jews to the East’ where they were mass-murdered in gas chambers. However, it was very complicated to classify a person as Jewish, due to a possibly mixed heritage, and so it was also proposed that half-Jews could be ‘sterilised’, preventing them from passing down any Jewish blood. It was an extremely surreal experience to be in the midst of such a significant place in history, we could almost pull ourselves back through time and imagine the atmosphere of the house during the decision. The Wannsee house is a beautifully designed Italian villa surrounded by an idyllic landscape, with a picturesque lake and autumn trees from a fairytale, and it was shocking to imagine how so much cruelty, discrimination and heartless atrocity was initiated from such a paradisaic place.

We also traveled to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Very memorably, on that day, our travels were delayed by the fact that they had found an unexploded bomb from World War Two, stuck in the marshy Berlin underground; filling us all with a buzz of excitement. According to a guide from the Berlin Unterwelten, due to the swampy nature of the underground, thousands of bombs are still stuck and never detonated, one is found almost every single week. The Sachsenhausen camp was established in 1936. The conditions were absolutely atrocious at the time, prisoners would be stuck in the barren land, frozen from the biting cold with no reprieve. They’d have had a constant ache in their stomach from a lack of food and painful, aching bodies, branded with constant bruises from all the labour and torture they were forced to face. We learnt about so much through the concentration camp and gained a new appreciation for it all, we learnt about how there was a hierarchy within the prisoners, how the prisoners were separated and classified and probably most memorably, we learnt about the terrible daily tortures. What resonated with all of us was how the SS officers in charge would punish the prisoners and try to humiliate them through every little action, such as giving them the wrong sized uniform. They also had experiments that they used as punishment for prisoners, one of which was ‘shoe-walkers’. The Nazis were trying to develop a cheap alternative for leather, and to test out these materials, they would force prisoners who had committed minor mistakes to walk extremely long distances in the bitter cold with these shoes on, often in the wrong sizes. Through the exhibitions, we learnt about both horrific and remarkable stories, and gained a new appreciation for how much small moments and actions matter. One story that truly left an impression on us was how a young Jewish prisoner, out of his last few rations, created a delicate ceramic shoe, as a present for a Soviet prisoner of war. This story brought tears to the eyes of many, as among all the horrific information that we read, there was such a beautiful story of pure kindness. There were also some extremely memorable watercolour paintings done by Etienne von Pleub, a former prisoner who depicted the harsh situation of the inmates. One painting particularly stood out as it was of a scene where an SS officer forced one prisoner to beat another, truly portraying the unimaginable acts of brutality that went on in the camp. There is no way we could ever truly sympathise with the bitter conditions they had to face, however, walking through the concentration camp, deep feelings and questions were unearthed as to the injustice of discrimination and the pain we felt as we empathised with all the lives irrevocably damaged by this camp and many other places and events similar to this that have happened much too frequently in the past and present.

The time that our group spent at the Sans Souci Palace and gardens in Potsdam on the fourth day of our six day trip is not only a part of the trip that was one of our favourites, but it was also one of the moments that will stick with us long after the trip. Firstly, the one major factor that amazed us was the sheer beauty of the Sans Souci garden and the 18th century style architecture. Specifically, a Rocco style of architecture which perfectly captured the essence of relaxation, and extravagance for Sans Souci palace, with its almost whimsical, and light style. An example of the opulent style of Rocco can be seen in between all of the fifteen large, grand terrace windows were placed two smooth, sandstone columns, that were decorated by almost life-like carved figures of the companions of the Greek wine god Bacchus as Atlantes and Caryatids (sculptures that serve as an architectural support). As the characteristics of Bacchus and his companions perfectly captured the playful essence of Rocco style. Every small detail of Sans Souci Palace was, not only expertly crafted, but beautifully followed the theme of Rocco. From the rich, warm gold paint that coated the entire palace that captured the sense of luxuriousness that is in Rocco, to the fact that Sans Souci has only one level, thus allowing there to be little maintenance (due to the minuscule size of the palace) and making it easier and quicker to move to different areas in the palace. Even the name of the palace, which is elegantly engraved in bronze on the central bow of the palace, captures the carefree feeling of Rocco style as it translates from French into, ‘carefree.’ Finally, the main reason as to why we’ve picked this moment of the trip as one of our favorites is due to what we actually did in Sans Souci. Walk and reflect. The first three days of the trip had already affected us deeply. We were completely and utterly emotionally exhausted. The sadness, and anger that we had felt when going over the Holocaust in our history lessons had started to become more potent, as we were actually standing in the areas where millions of poor souls had died a merciless death and listening to their stories of pain and suffering. On the first three days we never properly absorbed the sobering information of Germany’s past that we had acquired, as we were immediately moving from one place to the next soaking up new information. As we slowly walked in silence, hearing the gravel softly crunching under our feet, all the lurid details and facts on the Holocaust, the Stasi, and the Cold War slapped us sharply in the chest. In that moment we were completely overwhelmed by a cascade of emotions. Of feelings of remorse, infuriation, and numbness. However, after a few moments these dark, powerful emotions were slowly blown away by the cool Autumn breeze. Our time in Sans Souci Palace may not have provided us with wonderful historical facts, which we all live for in history, but it did give us the time to reflect upon the horrific events of Germany’s past that we are studying for our iGCSEs and control the overpowering emotions that we all encountered on our trip, and because of that, our time in Sans Souci will stay with us forever.

Our experiences in Berlin were unforgettable and unparalleled. It was a surreal adventure, that surpassed our expectations, and it added an element of realism and empathy to our iGCSE and IB learning. We were immersed in the vibrant, buzzing culture of the city, gaining an appreciation for the history of this place and how it has affected and enriched Berlin and its people in the most unexpected ways, such as having conversations with locals, riding public transport and walking through the city at night. It was an incredible opportunity, something that we will all treasure and remember fondly.


8 Nov 2016
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