Berlin, Germany is an odd place to visit for a few hours. It’s not nearly enough time to get past the painful palpable past and reconcile that with the vibrant metropolis it is now. It was an ambitious excursion from our Baltic Sea Cruise. Once again I went with Alla Tours to be our guide.
The trip required us to be on a bus just past 7am to embark on a 3 hour ride. We stopped once for a bathroom/snack run as we made our way on the autobahn toward Germany’s capitol. Our tour guide was named – wow, I can’t remember his name. If I’m honest, I wasn’t a huge fan. He tried to be witty but the sarcasm was too heavy (even for me) and it didn’t play out well with the devastating history we were unfolding.
Our guide let’s call him, Hans, pointed out various buildings and the shopping district. There was some disappointment that most stores were closed because it was a Sunday. I didn’t mind since we wouldn’t have time to shop, plus it lightened the traffic a bit. One fun fact that Hans mentioned is that the public trees in Berlin are numbered, that way if there is an issue the person in charge of trees knows which tree to attend to. I would’ve thought Hans was joking if I didn’t see numbered placards on trees throughout the day.
Our first stop in Berlin was to see the Berlin Wall Monument which included a Topography of Terror Exhibit. So much for getting your feet wet, dive right into the genocide of millions of innocent people. We only had 20 minutes here, 20 minutes to read how more than ten million people were exterminated and killed at war (spoiler: lots of people died in horrific ways). Twenty minutes to get a glimpse into the horrors that Poland went through and the bravery with which her citizens resisted the Nazis and the Soviet invasion. It’s a somber place.
About five years ago I visited a woman on hospice. I was there as a volunteer, we sat for a few hours and she told me about herself, I just listened. Jadwiga was born in Poland in the 1930’s and she had a sister. She and her sister lived with their parents until they were all relocated to a camp when she was nine years old. They spent at least two years in that camp, only she and her mother survived. Her father and sister died of starvation which was sadly not uncommon in the camps. Here’s the twist that I didn’t expect, her family was Catholic. The people of Poland had Germany attacking from the east and Soviets invading from the west. Many civilians were killed immediately, many more were sent to camps or relocated to remote locations including Siberia.
Sometimes I’m stunned by how much I didn’t learn in school. Hitler viewed Polish people as inferior. His plan for Poland was to colonize it leaving some Poles to do manual labor and assist with the war effort. In an attempt to reduce the chances of a rebellion, Polish people that were seen as intellectuals or having the ability to persuade an uprising were killed – teachers, priests and members of the “leadership” class. Oops, our twenty minutes are up, time to get back on the bus. I bought a pretzel from a street vendor and we moved along. If you want to learn more here’s a link – Polish Victims of Nazi Germany
The next stop was Checkpoint Charlie. Checkpoint Charlie was the most famous border crossing along the Berlin Wall. The Berlin Wall was constructed in 1961 to slow the defection of Eastern Germans to Western Germany. At the time, Eastern Germany was struggling under communist rule and Western Germany had much more robust economy.
The separation of Berlin began after the collapse of Germany in 1945 when the country was divided into four zones. Each zone was headed by a superpower – American, British, French and Soviet. In 1946 the allies of the Western Zones (American, British & French) came together during a break down in reparation agreements, leaving the Soviets in the Eastern Zone. The allies wanted to build a new economy in Western Berlin, Eastern Berlin was under communism. This all played out during the Cold War (1947 – 1991).
So we basically got let out of the bus near Checkpoint Charlie and were told to be back on the bus in half an hour. It was lunchtime so we went to a cafe to find some food, we wound up at Coffee Fellows. I’m just going to out myself as someone who previously believed the stereotype that German workers are efficient, this place cured me of that. We spend 22 of our 30 minutes waiting for a smoothie and a sandwich, that left us 8 minutes to explore.
In that 8 minutes we browsed souvenir shops and street vendors who were all selling gas masks in various shapes and sizes. There was also the image of two men kissing, that image was everywhere – mugs, bags, posters, pins, magnets, t-shirts, any standard souvenir item you can conjure. Naturally I had to find out who these two men were and what the significance was…
In October of 1979 Regis Bossu took the famous photo of Leonid Brehzhnev and Erich Honecker. Apparently the men got excited over a ten year agreement of mutual support which involved ships, machinery, fuel, along with chemical and nuclear equipment. Explosive stuff no doubt. The “Fraternal Kiss” photo inspired a painting titled – My God, Help Me to Survive this Deadly Love – by Dmitri Vrubel (1990). His painting remained on a section of the Berlin Wall until it deteriorated and was repainted in 2009.
Time’s up back on the bus. Hans kept pointing out buildings and making snide remarks about Angela Merkel. I was getting tired of the bus and my daughter was sick. We got out a few more times, once in what used to be East Berlin and then back to the western side to wander near the museums and visit a street market. Did I mention that it was a thousand degrees that day?
About 6 hours in we went to the Memorial of the Murdered Jews of Europe. Hans explained that Hitler’s bunker was in that general area, he was not keen on pointing it out or directing foot traffic in that direction. The prevailing thought is that Germans did not want to commemorate or lend public space to Hitler so the bunker is inaccessible. I opted to spend my time at the Memorial and as was the case all day, there was not enough time for this sacred place.
Back on the bus this time we were let out near the Brandenburg Gate where Ronald Reagan made his famous “Berlin Wall” speech. The gate was under significant repair so I didn’t get a decent photo. There is a placard where President Reagan stood for that famous speech. It’s also close to the German Parliament building which features a glass dome. Hans also pointed out the Victory Column, affectionately called – Chick on a Stick.
We started making our way back to the autobahn which would lead us back to port in a mere three hours. It was an exhausting day. Berlin deserves at least a week to explore, I would have liked to get to know her better. Her history is so heavy yet I saw glimpses of whimsy and chic within the city, I hope to visit again.