As some of you may know, last year I had the opportunity to visit Berlin on my Frog Camp. During that trip I was awestruck by the amount of humility that Berlin had about its dark past. This time around was different, different in an even better way. Cultural Routes is not a hold-your-hand experience, it allows you to dive deep, think harder, ask questions, and be challenged. As we were divided into three groups, I was placed with Team Alpha (the best team of course;) ) and we were given a list of tasks to do the past two days. However, our job was not to just complete the list, it was to immerse ourselves into the culture of Berlin. This was done to the maximum, just ask my legs (14 miles walked today). Between the two days thus far of experiencing Berlin and Dr. P’s night adventures, I am overwhelmed in the most beautiful way by Berlin’s ability to wear their past on their sleeve. Many moments come to my mind when I think about what has impacted me but two places of extreme significance are in the forefront of my brain.
Day one for Team Alpha was nothing short of heavy on the mind. We began the day at the Memorial of Murdered Jews, a powerful but yet subtle memorial. It is subtle in the fact that one would really not know what it is if they just walked past it, but there is deep meaning in that. Just like German citizens watched the Jews be taken away and persecuted, bystanders just go by this massive complex without a thought because it is not labeled. In the pictures below you will see a series of grey stone, very similar to the look of a grave, as you can guess that was intentional. The beauty of memorials is their ability to be multi-vocal. As we collaborated as a group and then later this evening as a CR unit, many meanings of these stones were brought to the table. The stones represent the map of the concentration camps that were in Europe, the walks of life that each Jew took, the way that the Nazis viewed the Jews: uniformed and took away their humanity, and even just how quickly we find ourselves in a mess we were not sure we were in. As you look at the memorial from the outside, you are unable to see the darkness, isolation, and uneven ground that lies inside of the blocks. As you walk in, the ground goes lower, the grave stones beside you rise past your waist, then past your shoulders, and before you know it you are surrounded looming stones, towering over your head. You don’t know if someone is coming around the corner or if they are on the other side of the stone. It was hard to walk through, but even more impactful at night when the stones seemed even more daunting and running into others made you jump a little more. I will never be able to understand what the Jews felt or their experience, but I believe this memorial was made to put us in their shoes. The Nazis loomed over them, dehumanized them, overpowered them in every way. At first it started small, but quickly turned into something no one though would ever happen, millions of Jewish people being murdered.
I have visited the memorial three times now, including Dr.P’s recent night adventure. Visiting the memorial at both day and night created emotions of sadness and fear. For a group of people to be demoralized and dehumanized cut incredibly deep and only went deeper as we entered the Holocaust museum that lies under the memorial. As we went under, we were walked through the continuous rise of the Nazis power and how they gradually began to rid of the Jewish people in the most horrific ways. Up top, there are 2711 blocks, no identification of the humans that the Jewish people were, but underground is where their story lies. The ceiling shows where the blocks are and it continues down to a story of a victim of the Nazis, the fear they felt and how their lives were taken over and cut too short. I remember feeling heavy leaving the museum after reading quotes of victims and the shear terror that their lives brought to them each day. They did not know if it would be their last, and many hoping it was their last just to escape the horror. Their reality was something I felt I could barley comprehend. A question our group kept coming after was “How did Hitler make this all happen?” 6 million Jewish people murdered. How did the world not stop this or see it coming in its beginning stages? Imagine if Hitler used his gift for leadership in the correct way, what a different world we would be in. But, isn’t that true in a lot of scenarios?
Day one consisted of much of the Holocaust and then we ventured onto day two, our day of the Soviet Union. I personally find the Soviet Union and their piece of World World II extraordinarily interesting. Yes, I know I just took a complete 180, but I promise this place is significant too. Treptower Park was one of my favorite places we visited and Team Alpha had the pleasure of having Dr. P join us, which I could not be more grateful for. This particular memorial has symbolism in every statue, plant, angle, and plaque; we needed Dr. P to help open our minds to the various meanings of this particular memorial. Aside from the Soviet Memorial’s stunning layout, the meaning behind the placement of each structure and the story told is important. As a general overview, this memorial is congruent to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in America just for the Red Army instead. However, before we go deeper I want to clear up some possible concerns. I ensure you that I do recognize the the Soviet did some horrific things. In Berlin, Germans actually refer to the “Tomb of the Unknown Rapist.” When they were taking over, they raped thousands of women and that cannot go unrecognized nor will I try to defend such horrible actions in any way. As you also know the Soviets were communists, I am not supporting that either.
That said, back to the memorial. As you walk into Treptower Park you seen a woman, humbly bowing in respect, this is all you see. As you reach the statue, you turn and see two flags angles, two soldiers bowing, and a series of story-telling stones that all face toward the center of a mass grave. The gravesite of six thousand soldiers rest there. A story of the Red army lines the right and left side of the memorial; Russian on the left, German(language) on the right. They have the story in German so the Germans people remember the sacrifice made by the the Soviet Union. The Germans broke the alliance and brought tragedy to the people. The Soviets lost twenty-seven million lives during WWII. Twenty-seven million. They carried a massive burden of the war. As you continue to move through the story of the people’s army you are led to the tomb. The tomb is topped with a soldier holding a sword that cut the swastika and was crushing it with his foot, all while holding a child. Some might be thrown off by the child being held, I know I was, but then I turned around. Think back to the woman at the beginning of the memorial, who is she bowing to, who is she thanking? That woman was Germany at its current state during WWII and that child represents the future of Germany, both saved by the Soviet Union. This memorial is powerful and beautiful. Millions of lives were lost, families were broken, horrors were seen and this memorial could not do a better job of honoring that sacrifice as they protected their people.
These two very thought provoking places were significant to what makes Berlin so incredible. They have one of the darkest times on our world’s history right there in their city. They live it every day. What I love the most is how they own up to their mistakes and broadcast their history in an effort that it does not repeat itself. The Memorial of the Murdered Jews takes up an entire block of the street and the Holocaust Museum is free for all to come learn about the history of the Holocaust. The Germans also gladly take care of the Soviet Memorial as they recognize the sacrifices made by the Soviets as their loses still effect families today. This kind of humility lived and breathed by Berlin has been something I hope for for the United States. We have many parts of our history that are gruesome and far from what we want to be as a country. I believe our pride gets in the way of becoming a better country. If we own up to the mistakes of the past we are more likely to learn and grow from them and less likely to repeat it.
These past two days have been mentally challenging in all the right ways. I am so grateful for the depth and how much emotion has been brought into each spot on our list. Team Alpha, ya’ll are incredible and I can’t wait to make this last day the best one.
More picture because this is so funnnn!!!!!