At the end of October 2017, I left for Berlin to chaperon 50 senior high school students. We left from the region of Lyon, in France and had a night trip by bus to arrive in the German capital in the early morning and enjoy 4 full days of sightseeing.
Visit of Berlin
I visited Berlin in 2015, during my Interrail trip, but we had very little time and I had not planned anything during this brief stay. I had only seen the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag and walked at the East Side Gallery, where the wall is painted.
On the first day of our visit to Berlin, we started with a very good breakfast in a restaurant called “Zum Paddenwirt” in the Mitte district near Nikolai-Kirche, the oldest church in Berlin.
Once our belly was full, we went up the main Unter den Linden Avenue to the Brandenburg Gate and then to the Holocaust Memorial.
After walking about 6km during the morning, we stopped again to eat. 🙂 We had lunch at “Kartoffelhaus” literally House of potato, a restaurant of German specialties with the standard sausage and sauerkraut menu with… potatoes. 😛 It was succulent!
Visit to the DDR Museum
For our first guided tour, we went to the DDR Museum.
I was a little lost at the beginning of the visit, not knowing what “DDR” meant, or “GDR”, a term used by our English guide. We say “RDA” in French, which is the “German Democratic Republic” or East Germany. So it was the museum on East Germany.
The museum talks about the wall, the STASI (Police – Secret Service of the GDR) and the daily life of Germans in East Germany. It has many objects from that time and multimedia installations. It is up to the visitor to make his journey and discover what interests him in the museum.
Unfortunately, we didn’t have much time to wander around, as we had a fairly busy schedule. However, our visit was organized with a guide who managed to give us most of the interesting information. He was able to challenge us on the living conditions in East Berlin and in the rest of East Germany with anecdotes. He told us about his personal life growing up in the GDR.
After visiting the DDR Museum, we left by foot for more than 7 km to reach our hostel.
The next day, we left Berlin for the day, so it was the day after that we started our day with the visit of the Hohenschönhausen Stasi Prison.
It is today a memorial where you can visit the cells and interrogation rooms with guides who are often former prisoners of the same prison.
For length issues, I preferred to write more in details about the STASI in another article that you can discover here: The STASI prison in Berlin, Germany.
After the visit of the prison, we left for a guided tour of almost 2h at the Berlin wall.
The Berlin Wall Memorial is a special place filled with history and stories. This visit was fascinating and overwhelming thanks to our guide. Unfortunately, because of the emotions at the beginning of our visit, I could not take notes. And today, more than 20 days later, if I tried to relate this experience, I would not tell it properly.
It is a very interesting memorial because you can see everything, but you have to know what you are looking at. Therefore, I advise you to take a guide if you want to visit this part of the wall.
To start our last day in Berlin, we went to visit the Tränenpalast, translated to the Tears Palace.
This building, adjacent to Friedrichstrasse station, was a border crossing to control passengers between East Germany and West Berlin. Passengers could wait for hours to have their passports checked at the border crossing. Sometimes they learned that they were being denied permission to leave the territory, and therefore they were stranded in East Berlin, in the GDR.
In addition to the paper work, the passengers were being searched by customs officers in search of contraband.
Everyone was passing through the Tränenpalast, even the East Germans who were trying to get away from the GDR passed through this border post. We suspect that almost all attempts at escape have failed, but this did not stop the inhabitants of East Berlin. They were hoping to get arrested by trying to leave the GDR and then be “redeemed” by West Germany.
Day trip outside of Berlin
As said before, we left Berlin for our second day of visit. We first headed north to Oranienburg to visit a concentration camp. Then, in the afternoon, we went southwest to visit a castle in Potsdam.
Sachsenhausen Memorial and Museum in Oranienburg
Sachsenhausen was a concentration camp that was built in 1936 in a forest, close to the town of Oranienburg, under the order of the SS.
The camp is then a model to be duplicated by its architecture and its facilities. It became a school for the SS, in order to train commanders and executives for the other concentration camps of the country.
Between 1936 and 1945, more than 200 000 people were interned in Sachsenhausen. They were common-law prisoners or political opponents. Then from 1938, the camp greeted “inferior” people like Jews. A small camp inside the concentration camp was even intended for them.
There were about 80 000 people who died, succumbing to hunger, to their wounds, to illnesses or even to forced labour. Some were victims of extermination.
It is a gigantic camp, now a memorial and a museum. It can be visited with audioguides in several languages. However, it takes a certain number of hours to see everything by listening to all the points of the audioguide.
We were there only during the morning so we only covered the basics. And here is what struck me the most about this camp knowing it was the first time I visited a concentration camp:
The little camp of the Jews
Out of 80 barracks (house of the prisoners on the camp) there was the “small camp” consisting of two Jewish barracks. These were occupied by about 1200 Jews between 1938 and 1942, after which they were deported to Auschwitz.
Today there is a museum about the history of Jewish prisoners in the barrack n°38. In the n°39, there is a multimedia exhibition about the daily lives of the prisoners on the camp.
In 1992, the Israeli minister came to visit the camp to pay tribute to the Jewish victims. The media then seized the story and people learned that there was a Jewish memorial in this camp. As a result of this, a neo-Nazi criminal attack was perpetrated on these two barracks. They were partly burned and almost completely destroyed.
Station Z, or the camp exit
The entrance to the camp is called Tower A, and the place that has most marked me is the Station Z. Station Z is today a place of commemoration for the victims of this camp. At the time, it was the place of the crematoria furnaces and the killing facilities. Right next door was the execution pit.
The disapeared brothel
Many of the camp’s buildings no longer exist today, such as the building that served the brothel. The women in the camp were forced to prostitute themselves for the SS or for the prisoners. The latter could “afford” a lady against tickets earned for good performance during forced labor.
Cecilienhof Castle and the Potsdam Agreements
In the afternoon, we went to Potsdam to visit the Cecilienhof Castle. To be very honest, I did not pay much attention to this castle, nor to its princess.
This place is important because it welcomed the great leaders of the allied powers. They fixed the fate of the enemies even before the end of the war between July and August 1945. This is where Churchill, Truman and Stalin found an agreement on the distribution of Germany in four occupation zones, post World War II.
And that’s where Germany was divided until 1989, until 28 years ago. Only 28 years ago!