gap year in israel

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Day 1

Berlin really was a very cool city before those nasty Nazis. We have all seen Cabaret and Schindler’s list so they both cover the entire story….

Today Berlin is back to being really really cool and there are very few Nazis around to spoil the fun.

Apparently the trip to Germany was easy since they all got on the plane, immediately fell asleep, and only woke up when they landed. Then it was off to their hotel by taking a subway/train which they found easily. The report is that it is very cold in Germany now (but those of you from the Northeast are having your own cold issues anyway which are worse).

I hope some of you were adventurous and clicked on the link for the Michel Berger hotel. It is not a place YOU would stay in but totally hipster for today’s youth. I mean, did you guys see the pictures of the rooms? With the unmade beds? And god knows what on the night stand? Yeah, the Five Seasons it is not. Paula said from her room you can see someone taking a shower (she is alone in the room so no one will be seeing her…). The students have rooms with beds hanging from the ceiling. Rumor has it that Arielle already fell off so she had to take a lower, less adventurous bed. Next to the boys’ room there is a sign that says Room 330 is the Massage Room. They are not sure what that is but intend to find out. In the bar there is a huge bird’s next with a giant egg hanging over it. Yes, we are talking weird.

First stop was the Antique Market. They ate lunch of curry wurst and frankfurters (hot dogs for you non Germans). They had free time to walk around and met their first mean Germans who were yelling at them in German for something they did that they didn’t understand (they may not have ordered enough pretzels in a particular store). But most of the Germans have been friendly.

The students were still sleepy so they decided to take a longer train to give them a chance to take a nap. Personally I can’t handle all this talk of “trains” and “Germany” but it didn’t seem to bother them.

They went to the museum The Story of Berlin which included a bunker from the cold war that was meant as a nuclear bomb shelter for 3500 people. It was rows and rows of barracks and definitely reminded the students of concentration camps. The bunker was never used fortunately. Their tour guide, Kevin, was called an “islander” because he grew up in the “island” of West Berlin when it was surrounded by the Soviets. So this was their first brush with someone who lived through the history making the guiding even more authentic. Jordy has in his head that he wants to write on the Berlin Wall. He brought markers. They are trying to verify if this in fact is legal. Personally Jordy I wouldn’t risk being sent to a German prison (our people did not do too well in those places).

The next museum was also amazing called the Typography of Terror. They had another great guide and learned a lot about the SS and saw part of their headquarters.

Paula commented that obviously the students are talking a lot about the Holocaust. One of their guides admitted to his family being Nazis. And there are plenty of Germans that can understand English and were listening in. Paula said she felt a bunch of the Germans looked uncomfortable. As far as I am concerned…that is not a bad thing.

They went to a nice restaurant for dinner where they could get shnitzel and pasta. Matt has a dish that was pasta inside an egg omelet. I have never eaten that and not sure that I want to but I am glad Matt is experiencing something new.

They had a really tiring day and are going to sleep now. It seems that they are having a great time but also learning a lot (which basically is the Aardvark goal for these International trips).


Day 2

Without googling, who will be the first person who can tell me where the following quote is from? You will get an honorary mention in the next letter.

“Don’t be stupid, be a smarty, come and join the Nazi party.”

The students had a heavy day dealing with the Holocaust and German History. They started at the Reichstag and had breath taking views of the city while learning about Germany during the war. Matt apparently knows a lot of WWII history so he was keeping the tour guide on his toes. The guide was Nadav who is an Israeli. Paula thought he was brilliant but the students thought he talked too long.

They discovered that the mass deportation of the Jews from Berlin happened on Nick’s birthday (so that now puts a damper on his birthday celebrations for his whole life). It occurred on October 18. Apparently Berliners were indifferent to what was going on and professed no knowledge of death camps. They saw a letter written by a driver to his wife claiming that the Germans were building a whole new city for the Jews called Auschwitz.

Another memorial was the Rosenstrasse. This was the site of the only mass protest of people against the government (in this case against the Gestapo) by the non-Jewish wives trying to save their Jewish husbands from deportation. At another museum which was a factory for blind people, they learned that there were actually some Jews who collaborated with the Nazis and they learned how well organized the Germans were and they kept track of everything…which makes the Holocaust even more chilling to contemplate. The tour guide told a story that his family home was taken away. After the war they were entitled to compensation. His family was living on a kibbutz in Israel and they used the money to found the Prigat Juice Company. And apparently another relative who went to America used his money to invest in 7-11.

They saw the Old Jewish Cemetery that has not gravestones besides two that had to be brought from somewhere else. Then they saw the New Synagogue which was rebuilt. Unfortunately the architect was a non Jew and the place looks like a mosque.

At lunch again they thought some German was being mean to them but actually they were being very nice. It just sounds mean. Please go to this classic Dana Carvey skit to see what we mean

After eating it was more memorials. At the memorial for the murdered Jews of Europe our students did a private ceremony with kaddish and readings. The place is huge and sort of like a playground for kids. And in fact they did see children running around. I think it must be like Ammunition Hill in Jerusalem which is a memorial but has fun bunkers to run around in.

They saw another part of the Berlin Wall (shhh. Jordy in fact wrote on it). For dinner they went to a sushi restaurant where no one spoke English (though I forgot to ask if they problem was the German or the Japanese?).

Now they are at the Berlin Film Festival to see the movie Some Like It Hot. Yes it has nothing to do with Germany, WWII, the Holocaust, etc. Which is very good since it was a tough emotional day so they need a great comedy to watch. I am pretty sure the students have not seen the movie though it is a classic. What is important for all of us to remember is that Marilyn Monroe was Jewish. So it fits our theme someone.

If the students have energy after the movie they will try to go out to see some Berlin nightlife and again unwind from the tough day.

Day 3

Corrine Blake (Arielle’s mother) wins yesterdays competition. It is a Mel Brooks quote from the Producers (you know, springtime for Hitler and Germany.,..)

They students started the day going outside of Berlin to Wannsee. The area is simply stunning to see. And they came to a fantastic villa. Of course though looking beautiful this simply was a place for evil since this is where the Final Solution was worked out. Apparently Hitler and Himmler didn’t even go to the “Conference.“ They had already decided to kill the Jews. This was basically like many a conference that we have gone to with discussion groups after breakfast. Led by Heidrich this was the place to work out the nitty gritty details of how the Germans were going to exterminate a people. At the end of the exhibit there is an area that younger relatives (children, nieces, nephews) wrote about how ashamed they were to have Nazi relatives and how they couldn’t believe people in their family could do such evil. Apparently Germans for a long time didn’t ask older relatives questions or look at pictures because they were afraid of what they would discover.

The group then they took a train back to Berlin. On a lighter note the boys of the group are obsessed with pretzels. From breakfast at the hotel they take them to snack on all day. Apparently Nick likes them so much his pockets were overflowing and pretzels were falling everywhere.

They were on their way to the Israeli embassy. There was really tight security and it took a long time to get in. The complex is huge and there are many Israeli government officials there because of the SPECIAL relationship of the countries. They were met by Tal Gat who is the head of PR. Like many of the Israeli workers, Tal is the grandson of Holocaust survivors. The diplomatic relations between the two countries are always weighed down by history. The group learned that the German government is very pro-Israel and helps a lot. Israel is a large part of the media reports. But many times it is not so positive.

In many European countries there are active public movements against Israel. In Germany you will not see public protests. They general population is confused. They know of their wall (Berlin) and can’t understand why Israel has a wall around the Palestinians (a general note to everyone. We really don’t have a wall. It is a security fence. A very small portion is an actual wall and not a fence. This is the part that is photographed over and over. And since we have had the security fence we have had very little terrorism). The students asked good questions and found it interesting (well most of them….).

They then went back to their hotel and had some free time to wander. They are on their way for a dinner show. It is a Cabaret style. And as Liza would say “life is a Cabaret oh chum, so come to the Caberet.”

Generally the group is really tired since they did so much. But this is a good kind of tired. Until tomorrow…

Day 4

So the students went to the Cabaret last night. Since we are on that topic here is a clip of Liza doing the song Mein Herr It truly captures the spirit of what Berlin was all about before the Nazis and whatBerlin has become now after unification and democracy. And it is also fun to watch Liza and see how much she deserved the Oscar.

This is what Paula wrote me last night after the show:

OMG!!! So it was UNREAL. It was super weird and German in the best way
possible. Arielle said it was the better than Cirque de Soleil.
Everyone had a different favorite skit from the cabaret/ acrobatic
show. There are really no words to describe it so just to give some
vision – the soundtrack had everything from spice girls to heavy metal
industrial German music (Jordan asked for the soundtrack and they are
going to email it to all of us!). They liked it better than the
Chinese acrobats from the China trip for Clara and Jordan who went.
It was funny but also insane. The cast was predominantly dressed in
their underwear (and well…looked amazing) one fave skit was when
they all wore lamp shades over their heads and also when one
performer mastered the Diablo trick. Here is a You Tube short clip

Jordan signed the guest book based on what we were all thinking “I
don’t know how to describe what I just saw. Maybe someone slipped acid
in my drink but that was phenomenal. You are all either robots
or Greek Gods.“

After the show the students went out a bit and of course ran into two different groups of Israelis.

Today they took a train to the outskirts of Berlin to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. This was not an extermination camp (which the Germans put in other countries). The official policy was not no one was murdered in camps based in Germany. However the conditions were so bad that they basically worked people to death, or they died of disease, hunger, etc. They can still see some of the barracks and were the SS guards stayed. This was one of the first camps to be built and the SS did training here before being assigned another camp. They also experimented here with different method of running concentration camps as well as how to kill people en masse like using Cyclon B.

They had a fantastic guide named Stefan. He is a non Jewish German and was very knowledgeable. Stefan feels a responsibility to teach about the Holocaust. He seemed to have the weight of history on his shoulders but didn’t reveal much about why he wanted to teach this particular topic. This is something our students have felt in Germany that they constantly struggle to deal with their past. When we use the concept of Never Again the Germans have the concept of Never Forget. While we focus on what happened to the victims the Germans are focused on the perpetrators. There is a lot of shame from Germans and hard for them to think about their older relatives being a part of such evil. Clearly dealing with Holocaust issues as Jewish students in Germany is a different experience than going to Poland.

In the area is the Berlin Police Academy. As part of being a German police officer they are brought to Sachsenhausen to learn about the history. While our students were there there was a group of police officers wearing their uniforms walking around the camp. It did make our students uncomfortable to be in a concentration camp with Germans in uniform.

This camp was not a secret. There are big houses that existed at the time with views directly into the camp. It was impossible for average Germans to claim they didn’t know what was going on since they could see clearly with their own eyes.

The students also spoke about the SS guards and learned that you were not forced to kill Jews. It was not like as a German you had to follow orders to mass execute people or you would be killed yourself. You could get demoted or given a bad job assignment but not killed. Which says a lot about all the people who were so willing to become mass murderers. Today while it is clear that most Germans feel guilt and that they support the State of Israel, there are still neo-Nazis around. And in a recent poll 25% of German respondents wouldn’t want to live with Jews as neighbors and many felt that Jews had too much influence. So as great as it is to visit Germany, there are still some things to be wary about.

After this emotional visit, which Paula said was one of the highlights, the group ate lunch. Of course the boys had been snacking on their pretzels all morning but it was time to eat. They all went to different places with of course some opting to eat in McDonalds to help promote globalization.

Their next stop was the Jewish Museum. It is a huge complex and they spent little time dealing with the Holocaust and more time dealing with the long German Jewish history. There was an exhibit about Levy-Strauss. They learned that Jews fought for Germany in World War I. They saw a board game that children used to play called Das Alijah Spiel which basically was a game about making aliyah to Israel.

Tonight they are in a cool restaurant that has live music. Afterwards they definitely will be going out to see Berlin club nightlife. Both Arielle and Clara have friends in Berlin that they want to meet up with. In the morning they are getting up and going to the airport to come back to Israel. Exhausted but having had an eye-opening experience.

And here is a You Tube clip from the Producers “Springtime for Hitler and Germany.” What is better than tap dancing Nazis? I remember an interview with Mel Brooks when they asked him how he can make movies that make fun of the Holocaust. He said that every time he heard the laughter he felt that it was a personal victory. We won. The Jews were not annihilated. And we are hear to laugh at them. It is a very powerful life philosophy.