Day 1 – Berlin, Germany

We welcome parents of this year’s Holocaust Study Tour participants, their friends and family, HST alums, our colleagues, and anyone who has just happened upon our blog and is interested in our trip, as we begin our annual study of the Holocaust.

The 8 students from New Milford High School, New Jersey, arrived at the Moevenpick Hotel this morning in Berlin and joined the 5 students from Bishop O’Dowd High School, California who had arrived last night. The Mövenpick Hotel is in the Anhalter area of Berlin, in the center of the city close to the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag [parliament building], Potsdamer Platz  and Checkpoint Charlie where, during the Cold War and the division of the city,  tourists and West Berliners could leave the American sector and  enter the Soviet sector to visit East Berlin.  Located on Schöneberger Straße the building was a former industrial building built by the Siemens company in 1914 known as Siemenshaus, which Mövenpick converted in 2003 to a wonderful hotel which mixes contemporary design with elements of the building’s industrial past.  Throughout the hotel, cases housing various machinery parts and railway items such as locomotive boilers, reference the former railway station, the Anhalter Bahnhof the remains of which are located across the street from our hotel.

After a sumptuous breakfast buffet in our hotel, we boarded our bus, driven by Bettina, our wonderful driver from last year,  and with our localDSC_0002 guide, Olaf, and our historian, Shalmi Barmore, we headed off to tour the city of Berlin. We had expected clouds and rain, but it was all blue skies and warm weather today!

As we drove through Berlin, Olaf talked to us about the Berlin Wall, which he said was actually two walls with a ‘no man’s land’ in between, and had been hastily built overnight in 1961 to stem the tide of Germans seeking to leave East Germany and East Berlin for the democratic sectors of West Berlin monitored by the British, French and American forces after WW2.  He pointed out the cobblestones which were inset in the asphalt streets to show the path of the wall around the city until its demolition in 1989.  Olaf showed us Checkpoint Charlie, the checkpoint between the American and Soviet sectors of Berlin after WW2 through which people could pass between East and West Berlin.  Before a small white hut, a replica of the checkpoint,  there were individuals dressed up as American soldiers and tourists now pay to have their photo taken with a ‘soldier’ at this famous site.  Olaf told us how, to Berliners, this was disturbing.  He said for Berliners, the checkpoint symbolized the deaths of so many Germans who died, trying to escape East Berlin for freedom in the West, and the photo opportunities and selling of souvenir trivia trivialized the history.  Later in the morning we drove past the national memorial to the Berlin Wall which has includes segments of the wall, a watchtower, and historical photographs and information.

Next we drove to the beautiful Gendarmenmarkt where we learned about Frederick the Great, who had welcomed laborers from other countries and built churches for them, such as the Lutheran church and the French Huguenot church.  The square also houses the National Concert House.

On the famous Unter den Linden avenue, we saw the impressive statue of Frederick the Great, the prince of Prussia, and a crucial figure in the historical development of Berlin and German unification.

Near the statue we visited the memorial to the 1933 book burnings in Berlin, in the plaza in front of Humboldt University.  The memorial is a glass plate on the plaza through which people can look and see below rows of empty bookshelves below them, symbolizing the loss of the knowledge and culture the books had contained.  We were asked to consider which books were burned and why?  The Nazis wanted to destroy books by authors they felt were ‘contaminating’ the German culture.

As we continued our drive through the city, Olaf pointed out the many construction sites as this city is an amazing study in both old architecture and new buildings.  We learned that 60% of Berlin had been destroyed during World War II and then after the reunification in 1989 of East and West Berlin, there came a new spurt of building, particularly in former East Berlin.  One such site which has been under construction for years, is the new ‘old palace’ which had been destroyed in 1950 by the communists and which the people of Berlin had decided to rebuild and Olaf asked us to consider why the people of Berlin wanted this part of their history to be recreated.

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After having lunch in the Potsdamer Platz near our hotel, we visited the Berlin Memorial to the Murdered Jews of the Holocaust.  Olaf explained that the concept of having a memorial in Berlin to the Jews was one which was promoted in 1987 by a German journalist, Lea Rosh, who had visited Auschwitz and Yad Vashem and felt it was important that Germany create its own memorial to the Jewish victims, in the heart of Berlin, and so proposed and pushed for her idea to be made a reality by the German parliament, the Reichstag.  Olaf told us how in the 1950’s, 1960’s and even 1970’s most Germans did not want to talk about the Holocaust and remember that period in their history, but that by the 1980’s there was more of a willingness to reflect and remember the past as the younger generation, not directly connected to those years and events, began to ask questions.  In 1995 the Reichstag decided to build a memorial and then the discussion became “Who will build it?”, “What will it look like?” and “Where will it be constructed?” American architect Peter Eisenman won the project and it was built on a city block in the heart of the Government district, across from the American Embassy, by the Brandenburg Gate and very close to the Reichstag which can be seen from the memorial which was dedicated in 2005.

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It consists of 2,711 concrete blocks or “stellae” arranged in a seemingly haphazard manner, on a sloping surface which rises and falls as one walks through the stellae.  Students discussed with Olaf the meaning of memorials and how traditional memorials differed from modern memorials, as well as the controversy which often accompanies creation of memorials.  What is the symbolism of the gray blocks?  What is appropriate behavior at the memorial? Why is it only for the murdered Jews?  Olaf told us that the architect had said nothing about the memorial as a guide, leaving it to the visitor to determine the message.   Students then had the chance to walk through the stellae before reflecting upon the emotions they felt during this experience:  the unsteadiness of the ground, the narrowness of the path, the uncertainty of what might be around the next corner.  Olaf mentioned how, to him, the placement of the shorter stellae at the outside of the memorial represented the fact that the Holocaust had begun slowly but that as one progresses towards the middle, the blocks become higher and one is more alone, without even enough space to stand next to someone and proceed together.

Mr. Barmore told us that the architecture of memorials is all about symbolism.  We spoke of the difference between the classic memorials in so many cities which honor war heroes and which leave little room for discussion and the modern memorials which seem to challenge the visitors to enter into a discussion about what the memorial stands for.  We discussed why it is so much easier for a nation to build a memorial to victory and events which celebrate a nation’s glory but so difficult to build a memorial to the dark periods in a nation’s history.

Walking across the street we next visited the Memorial of the Murdered Homosexuals, a small grey concrete structure with a small window through which one could see a series of brief film clips of men kissing as well as lesbian couples.  Olaf told us that tens of thousands of homosexual men were sent to concentration camps.  Mr.  Barmore then spoke to us about the different policies of the Nazis towards gay men versus lesbians.  Although there were some lesbians who were incarcerated in concentration camps, we were told it was for reasons other than their homosexual lifestyle.  There were no laws passed against lesbianism.  It was not the government but society that disallowed it.  This was not the same for gay men.  We learned that the lesbian community today was upset that they had not, initially, been represented in the memorial and demanded they be included, which they were. However, that inclusion, said Mr. Barmore, meant that the memorial then, was not historically correct.  He told us that memorials are about a subject matter, but people who decide on that memorial use the memorial to convey a message and that message is their motivation.   “This is less a memorial to history than the issue today.  The Holocaust is history but homosexuality is still an open issue,” Mr. Barmore said.

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The  Memorial to the Sinti Roma was our next stop,  commemorating the murder of an estimated 500,00 Sinti and Roma [Gypsies] murdered by the Nazis in what the Roma call the Porjamos (The Devouring).   Dedicated in 2012, the memorial was designed by an Israeli artist, Dani Karavan, and has a round reflecting pool around which is written the poem “Auschwitz” by Roma author Santino Spinelli:  “Palid face,  Dead eyes, Cold lips,  Silence.  A broken heart, without breath, without words.  No tears.”    Surrounding the pool are  broken stone slabs on which are carved the names of concentration camps and ghettos in which the Sinti Roma were incarcerated.  In the center of the pool is a triangle on which rests a single flower.  Each day the platform is lowered below the surface and then is raised with a fresh flower.

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Mr. Barmore spoke of the complexity of the Nazi racial ideology and the fact that their application of the ideology had contradictions.    He told us that the Roma, originally from India, are actually Aryans, but that didn’t mesh with the Nazi view of Aryan supremacy that they were trying to promote.  The Nazi Revolution was basically a struggle for a way of life and the nomadic lifestyle of the Gypsies was not consistent with their view of the lifestyle which would exist in the Reich.   The Roma were therefore labelled as ‘asocial’ and their persecution was initially pursued on a sociological rather than racial basis.  Mr. Barmore also said that though were places where Roma would be rounded up and sent to camps, a neighboring town with Roma might not be touched, illustrating the inconsistency of Nazi polices.

We then walked to the Reichstag where we had entry passes to walk into the dome of the German parliament, and then headed back to the hotel to check into our rooms and get ready for our first dinner in Berlin.

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13 comments

  1. Such a experiential learning experience! Everyone on the trip is going to leave with more open minded and understanding! Can’t wait to follow the remainder of the trip, tell everyone I miss them so much!!

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  2. Hello all,

    I enjoyed and appreciated reading about the experiential journey you are embarking on. As a former history teacher, it was a yearly goal to ensure that my students learn about fear and genocidal issues to avoid future atrocidies to humanity. You are witnesses to that lesson, and Olaf’s comments about the continual effects on the German people are an essential reminder of how these were crimes against humanity. I am very proud to be a part of your reflections. Keep up the excellent work.

    I will check back in on your journey in a few days. Enjoy your studies and the time you will have to connect these experiences to your own history and life aspirations.

    Mr. D.

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  3. The memorial built for the homosexuals and the Sinti Roma(Gypsies) who were murdered during the Holocaust is a way to remind the public that it was not just the Jewish people who were murdered during the Holocaust but other people as well.

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  4. how did the students feel as they were walking through the memorial of 6 million murdered Jewish people? I felt it was very somber walking through, how did they feel different when the blocks were lower opposed to walking through the ones higher up?

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  5. The part that I thought was interesting was when they said that the memorials around all have a symbolism towards the holocaust. For one the memorials that I thought was cool was the “stellae” because it represents how slow the holocaust was going until the progress kept going the concrete blocks got bigger.

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  6. I know next to nothing about the Berlin Wall, but thanks to Olaf I learned more than I’ve learned in previous history classes. Thanks, Olaf!

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  7. I find it really interesting that the Berlin Wall was built overnight. Truly I do not know much about the Berlin Wall but with the background Olaf gave on it I want to learn more.

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