In a travel guide about Germany it says that following the “implosion of Germany’s history” Berlin became a city which is constantly “embracing change and pushing forward.” What the students saw and did today illustrated that completely. The morning began with a tour of former concentration camp Sachsenhausen. Just an hour’s travel from the center of Berlin, this camp was established in 1936 and operated through May 1945. In addition to serving as a detention camp and later extermination camp, it also became a training center for SS officers. Only 15-20% of the prisoners of Sachsenhausen were Jewish with the others detained there including criminals, Communists, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and gypsies.
The group was guided through the site together with a group of 17-18 year old non-Jewish students from a small town in Finland. It was fascinating for the teens to interact, share their reflections and thoughts, and learn together. Also, as they explored Sachsenhausen, they realized that although there were many visitors there, no one seemed to have any knowledge that today was Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day.) When our group reached a memorial site within the camp, they held a Yom HaShoah Memorial Ceremony, together with the Finnish students’ participation.
Together, they lit six memorial candles and read a number of poems and texts written by German Jews. The most special part of the ceremony however was the family history Daniel Finnie shared.
He told of his great grandfather who had been detained at Sachsenhausen during WWII. Somehow, his great grandmother managed to get a permit to secure his release and in 1939, they boarded the MS St. Louis and set out to Cuba along with over 900 other Jewish refugees fleeing Europe. However, when they arrived, their landing permits were revoked and the ship’s passengers were ultimately denied entry to Cuba, the United States and Canada, and had to turn back to Europe. Historians have estimated that, after the ship’s return to Europe, approximately a quarter of the ship’s passengers died in concentration camps. After an intense morning, the students had a chance to decompress when they returned to Berlin with a visit to Postdamer Platz.
This is a major center of commerce in the city with offices, a mall, restaurants, and even a lego world. The architecture of the place is very modern and beautiful. The students had a chance to eat lunch, explore the area, and enjoy the cool, but not raining, weather.
In the afternoon, the group headed to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.
As you’ll see in the photos I’ve attached, this site is a massive area filled with stone blocks. They start our shallow and low and as you move through the space they get taller and deeper. Although it is a memorial site, it is not uncommon to see people sitting on the blocks, children play between them, and although the architectural effect is intense, the atmosphere is less so. However, the memorial also includes a museum downstairs which had a completely different tone to it. As you walk through, you can hear the reading of names of victims and excerpted stories of people’s lives who perished.
This coupled with the visuals created the effect you would expect of a Holocaust Memorial.The memorial is located next to a huge park in the middle of the city and at the entrance to the park is Brandenburg Gate. As the group walked through this massive stone arch, they learned about its history and the significance. Today, it considered a symbol of the tumultuous history of Europe and Germany, but also of European unity and peace.
Next up was a little break at Starbucks with a special guest. Kari Semel is an alumni of Aardvark Israel 2011-12 and is currently in the midst of a study abroad experience in Berlin. It was a really nice opportunity for the students to hear about what it’s like to live in Germany, particularly as a young Jew, and to hear Kari reflect on her Aardvark experience.
Following their coffee break the group set off into the park to visit the Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted Under Nazism. But, google got it wrong, and the directions instead lead them to the Soviet War Memorial. This is also a massive, impressive memorial and the students enjoyed the opportunity to climb on the tank!
Finally they visited the Victory Tower in the center of the park, a major Berlin landmark.
For dinner tonight, they visited an extremely popular restaurant called Burger Meister. They loved the food and really enjoyed the authentic atmosphere. And, finally, they continued to get an appreciation of local German culture with their evening visit to a club called Madame Claude. Built in a former brothel, the venue is built as an upside down apartment (with furniture on the ceiling) and live music every night.
That’s all for today… Auf wiedersehen!