On November 18th, the other CSU IP students and I boarded a train and traveled roughly 700 kilometers through Germany to Berlin. This was our last excursion put on by the program, and it was particularly special because it included all of the direct enrollment students that are studying at other Universities around Baden-Württemberg. During our five-day trip, we learned and experienced so many things that attempting to summarize it has been an intimidating task (proven by the lateness of this post). Therefore, I have separate the days and attempted to create some sort of flow for this megapost. I have also included some historical information, so that it is easier to understand some of the other things that I write about. Enjoy!
Mittwoch, November 18
We arrived in Berlin at 15:37, after about 7.5 hours of traveling by train – not that I’m complaining; the ICE (Intercity Express) is quite luxurious, but very expensive. After we checked into our hotel, we walked a little over two kilometers through Kreuzberg to the Jüdisches Museum.
In great contrast to today, Kreuzberg was once the poorest neighborhood in Berlin due to its location. It lies in the middle of Berlin, just west of the river Spree, which made up part of the border between East and West Berlin for almost 45 years. After years of gentrification, Kreuzberg has developed into a cultural hub, teeming with life and diversity. The eastern side is more kitschy and hipster, and the western side is more refined and stylish, but both offer an assortment of parks, shops, cafés, restaurants, and bars that are sure to provide a great experience for most who visit. During the time I spent in Kreuzberg, I was reminded of San Francisco, which also boasts cultural diversity in a populous, historical city.
For those who are a little unclear on the post-WWII history of Germany (don’t feel bad, I was too), I will give a brief summary. Following the Yalta and Potsdam Peace Conferences in 1945, Germany was divided into four zones: the US zone in the southeast, the French zone in the southwest, the British in the northwest, and the Russian zone in the northeast:
In 1949, the Russian zone became the DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik, or German Democratic Republic, or simply East Germany). The DDR did not, however, include West Berlin, which remained in the jurisdictions of the US, French, and British. Although administrative responsibility was officially transferred to German communist leaders and the DDR was officially declared a state in 1949, Soviet forces remained in East Berlin throughout the Cold War, and it was referred to by the Western forces as a “Soviet Puppet State.”
Following years of tension between Russian East and Allied West Berlin, around 3 million citizens fled the DDR through West Berlin. In the first 12 days of August 1961 alone, over 18,000 refugees fled East Berlin. Within the following two weeks, the beginnings of the Berlin Wall were constructed to permanently seal the border to West Berlin and West Germany. Over time, the size and scale of the wall was increased to drastic extremes; more on that later.
Once we had arrived at the Jewish museum, we divided into three tour groups and set off. The group I chose had a leader that has a background in comparative religions, and as we walked through the architecturally marvelous museum, he gave us all sorts of information about Jews, Muslims, and Christians in relation to Germany’s history. It is incredible to learn about the past few hundred years from a German perspective, and it was fascinating to see in-depth exactly how not only Jews, but members of other religions as well, have been treated in Germany and surrounding Europe for the past two hundred years.
It is also unnerving to see the blatant and numerous parallels between the treatment of the Jews almost one hundred years ago, and the treatment of the Muslims today; the difference being that this time, Germany refuses to repeat the mistakes of the past, and recognizes the importance of loving and assisting all humans, no matter what race or religion.
After the tour, we still had some remaining time to walk through the museum. It was then that I realized just how frustrating museums can be, in that they provide a wealth of fascinating information, but it is nearly impossible to see everything in one visit. Years and years of knowledge lies at one’s fingertips, but to soak it all in would require an unrealistic amount of time, so I had to settle for walking around gawking at old relics and taking photos to review later.
That night, I went with a group of Californians in search of food. One of the amazing things about Berlin is the diversity of cultures living in the huge city-state, which means, naturally, a great diversity of food that one doesn’t normally find in Germany. As we walked back from the museum, we were tempted by all kinds of restaurants, the likes of which we haven’t seen since we left our buffet of a state, California. Finally, we settled on a Vietnamese restaurant about two blocks away from our hostel. The menu was extensive, offering tantalizing dishes from Phó to fish. Wait, what was that? Fish?
That’s right, fish. I chowed down on two scrumptious and satiating rolls of delicious sushi. Fresh fish is hard to come by in southern Germany, and sushi is a rarity; I hadn’t had eaten any since July, before I left the land of milk and sushi. I cannot capture in words how unbelievably blissful I was after devouring the last perfectly-crafted piece of sushi… my mouth is beginning to water as I write this, I must stop. Or eat dinner.
Donnerstag, November 19
We woke up bright and early to prepare for a long day of walking and exploring. First, we headed to the Paul-Löbe Haus, which houses offices for the Bundestag’s parliamentary committees. There we had a meeting with Claudia Roth, one of the Vice Presidents of Parliament and former leader of the Green Party, to hear her speak about current political events in Germany. Of course, this meant discussing the refugee crisis that the world is currently experiencing.
Frau Roth’s words on this subject were inspirational and full of wisdom. She spoke about how she had attended a Fußball (soccer) match a few days prior, in order to show solidarity and absence of fear for the terrorists in the wake of the Paris attacks, which had occurred the weekend prior. She spoke about the how critical it is for Germans and Europeans to show support for the refugees, in defense of humanity and international responsibility.
Acts of terrorism are executed in order to instill fear into citizens and turn them against one another, cultivating hatred and paranoia. By refusing to give into these tempting emotions and actions, and by accepting and integrating the refugees into our society, we are working towards a safer, more inclusive society. Article 1 of the Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany, drafted 8 May 1949, defines human dignity as the possession of political freedoms and social rights, and Germany acts in defense of human dignity so as to prevent another tragedy like the one that occurred during the Holocaust.
Frau Roth had to leave for a meeting shortly after she spoke to us, and our group of sixty-something Californians split into two and headed off for different tours. My group was led through an underground tunnel, in which we could see holes in the pillars caused by gunfire during the second World War. We surfaced inside the German parliament building, the Reichstag.
We took our seats above the parliament floor, and learned about how the German Parliament, the Bundestag works. Germany is a federal parliamentary republic, and as in the US, its powers are split into three branches: the federal, legislative, and judiciary branches. The Bundestag is the highest organ in the legislative branch, which decides on the federal budget, controls the deployments of the Bundeswehr (Federal Armed Forces), and elects the German Federal Chancellor, in addition to performing the legislative process and parliamentary scrutiny of the government and its work.
The guide spoke in German, but unfortunately myself and the rest of the Californians were incredibly exhausted, so we only caught the first half or so of what she told us, mostly regarding who sits in which chair and does what. We also learned that the blue farbe (colour) of the chairs is a patent-protected hue known as Bundestag Blau that makes grey or black suits stand out in photos or video. It also appears to be a different shade on photos or video than it does in reality.
After the tour, we headed up onto the roof, where a tornado-shaped engineering gem consisting of a series of moving mirrors inside of a large glass dome reaches high into the sky, reflecting light through the glass ceiling and into the Reichstag. The dome also collects rainfall and channels it into the restrooms in the building, and circulates airflow from underground, keeping the air fresh and cool.
We walked up the ramp that spirals around the dome, gazing down onto the Parliament floor from above. After the second World War, Germany rebuilt all the government buildings with many glass-walled or -roofed structures, so as to represent the transparency under which it has sworn to operate. From the roof of the Reichstag, which is free to access, citizens can look down at any time and see exactly what the Parliament is up to. From the very top of the Reichstag, one can gaze upon Berlin and see it’s different defining features, such as the Brandenburger Tor (Brandenberg Gate) and the Fernsehturm.
After a quick lunch, we headed over to the German “White House,” or Bundeskanzleramt. This building contains the office and meeting rooms of our Kanzlerin (Chancellor) Angela Merkel and the Chancellery, although unlike in the US, Frau Merkel does not live there, nor have any of the previous Chancellors. In fact, Frau Merkel resides with her husband in a modest flat in Berlin.
After we made it through the airport-esque security check, we toured the building, took a photo in front of the podium where Frau Merkel makes many of her televised addresses, looked around her cabinet meeting room, and explored the collection of gifts and historical memoirs, including John F. Kennedy’s handwritten note card from his famous speech in 1963.
After the Kanzleramt was a visit to the Brandenberger Tor, which was a remarkable sight to see in person. We strolled through the Pariser Platz, and stopped by the French Embassy, where a massive collection of flowers, photos, candles, and miscellaneous other objects had been laid in respect for the very recent attacks in neighboring Frankreich (France). To see the overwhelming amount of statements of strength and solidarity in all sorts of languages was empowering, and reminded me why I am proud to live in this incredibly forward-thinking country. The majority of citizens of this country stand together with humanity, regardless of religion, race, or sex, and we refuse to judge many based upon the actions of few.
The sun had set while we were in the Kanzleramt, so when we reached the Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas, or the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, at 17:00, it was dark. This was an ideal atmosphere for walking through the memorial, as the feeling of being trapped, helpless, invisible, and lost among the blocks was maximized by the black and grey skies overhead.
The Holocaust Memorial consists of a 19,000m2 gridwork of 2,711 rectangular grey blocks known as stelae, that begin at about a foot off the ground, and get taller and taller, eventually towering as high as three times my size as the ground drops underfoot while one walks deeper into the memorial. As I walked, I could hear other people’s footsteps or voices far off, sometimes running or walking slowly, but due to the sheer number and size of the blocks, I couldn’t tell how far away from me they were. For me, this simulated how a prisoner might have felt after years, months, or even days in a concentration camp, marching among the structures without a life, family, or even identity.
Feelings of hopelessness, chaos, confusion oppression, and loneliness encroached surprisingly quickly, reverberating off the stone walls and suffocating my senses. Exiting the memorial was gradual, as the blocks grew shorter and shorter, but it felt like it took a very long time, and when I looked back upon the field of blocks, I did not feel a sense of relief to be out, but instead a lingering feeling of being weighted down.
Our day came to a close after stops at part of the Berlin wall, the Sony Center, and one of the few remaining structures from before the World War. We grabbed snacks and drinks at a place called “Ballzak Coffee” (come on, wouldn’t you?) and headed back to the hotel.
That day was my dear friend Monique’s birthday, and we went out for drinks after dining on the so-called best döner in Germany. True, it was incredibly delicious, but I heard later that it was chicken meat, not lamb like traditional döner, so I’m not sure if it can be the best döner if it isn’t really döner. Nevertheless, my tummy and tastebuds were pleased.
Freitag, November 20
Thursday was a day spent getting to know the political side of Berlin, and Friday was the day we spent seeing all sorts of historical structures in Berlin. We began with a stop at Checkpoint Charlie, which was the main access point between East and West Berlin. Although it played a huge part historically, today it is more of a tourist attraction, with soldiers stationed outside that will stamp your passport or pose with you in a photo – for a fee, of course.
We then had a tour of the Denkmal Berliner Mauer (Berlin Wall Memorial), which began with a video describing the history and design of the wall. Many of us, myself included, were unaware of just how large and lethal the wall was. We learned that there were actually two walls, one of them 12 feet tall and 4 feet wide with an enormous pipe on the top to prevent climbers, with a stretch of smoothed sand known as the “death strip” between the two. This illuminated zone consisted of watchtowers every 250 meters, strips of spikes on the ground known as “asparagus lawn” or “Stalin’s lawn,” trip wires attached to alarms or, at times, shrapnel-launching weapons, vehicle-stopping ditches and blockades and, in certain places, land mines and dogs. The wall was not only designed to ensure the citizens of East and West Germany remained on their respective sides, but also to kill anyone who attempted to cross.
The first walls were constructed within a few days in 1961 after a sixth of the East German population had fled. The famous photo below was taken the day that construction began on the wall, by a journalist who captured the soldier leaping over the barbed wire from East to West Germany in order to escape the terrors within.
Part of the memorial included a wall of photos of the 138 people who were killed in some way as a result of the wall. There were 13 children on the wall, some as young as 1 year old, many of whom fell in the river Spree, which made up part of the border between East and West Germany. The law prohibited anyone from entering the river under punishment of death, and the fear was so great, that the children were not rescued and instead drowned.
It was raining as we finished our tour of the memorial, and we ran for the underground railway, headed for lunch in central Berlin. We were given one hour to find a place to eat, so my friends and I quickly decided upon a Thai place around the corner from the bus stop.
I dined on some deliciously spicy chicken curry, which is a huge change for my tastebuds. I have spent the past 22.5 years of my life declaring my distaste for anything spicy or spice-y, including sweet bell peppers or black pepper. Just in the past seven or so months, I have decided to change my palate and appreciate flavours for which I previously did not care. Because of this, I thoroughly enjoyed my lunch, and the Kellner (server) gave me a generous helping of some sort of cookie to take away with me. Unfortunately, I did not get the name, but it was tasty.
After lunch, we walked to the Museuminsel (Museum Island), admiring the massive, ornate buildings and getting ideas for where we could spend our free time the following day. We saw the Berliner Dom, the largest church in Berlin, and enjoyed some live music in the grass in front of the Neues Museum (New Museum). We walked through Bebelplatz, the plaza where one of the infamous Nazi book burnings occurred in 1933. Today, there is an underground memorial that one can see through the ground, consisting of bookshelves large enough to house 20,000 books, roughly the amount of books that were burned that night.
After we concluded our walking tour, the group split into two according to which tour we had selected; either a trip to der Gedenkstätte Deutscher Wiederstand or a tour of Topographie des Terrors. I chose the latter, having understood it to be the old headquarters of the SS, but it turned out to be a museum built upon the location of the former SS HQ. Despite that, the tour was incredibly interesting, and we learned more in-depth about how Hitler and his party came to power in Germany, how the Nazis operated within Germany, and how the concentration camps and other facilities were run.
The tour concluded our day, and after a decent meal of chicken and noodles from a Chinese place, I went back to the hotel and went to sleep.
Samstag, November 21
Saturday was our short day, with only one tour. We left the hotel much later than usual and headed to Hohenschönhausen, an old Stasi prison in former East Berlin. This building was originally built for manufacturing kitchen supplies, but in June 1945 it was converted into a prison for war criminals. It was run by the Soviet Secret Police during their period of occupation from 1945-1949, serving as both a prison and a transfer point for war criminals, and from 1949-1989 it was controlled by the Stasi.
The conditions under which the prisoners were kept were horrific, particularly under Soviet control. Prisoners were kept under deplorable conditions, with water as high as six inches on the floors of the cells, a constant, blinding light shining above the door, no bedding or pillows, forced sleep deprivation, and lack of physical exercise. Later, under Stasi control, conditions were slightly improved so as to prevent disease. Deaths were to be avoided at all costs, as that would relieve the prisoner from his or her suffering.
Psychological intimidation was a huge part of the torture as well. Prisoners were frequently interrogated, enduring chaotic and confusing sessions of questions that made no sense, often asking after things the interrogators knew to be false or unrelated to the prisoner, for as long as 48 hours. Families were often threatened, and many times, the interrogators would cause the prisoners to believe that his or her family was in danger, captured, dead, or dying, and then would send them back to their cells without news for months.
Back in the cells, prisoners were kept with up to five other cellmates, without a toilet. Prisoners, when not allowed to sleep, were permitted to engage in two activities: pacing in the cramped cell, or sitting straight-backed with his or her hands flat on a table. Cells were created with up to a foot of standing water in them, and prisoners were made to stand in the cells with water pouring over their heads for up to 72 hours. During the few hours that they were allowed to sleep, if a prisoner was caught with his or her hands out of view, or if their faces were not turned towards the door, a guard would slam a ring of keys against the metal doors, usually waking the entire block of prisoners.
I have taken this excerpt from the Prison’s website for accuracy regarding the prisoners taken to Hohenschönhausen:
“Apart from people suspected of having been part of the National Socialist apparatus, those imprisoned were primarily thought to be potential political opponents: members of the democratic political parties such as the Socialist SPD, the Christian Democrat CDU, and the liberal LPDP. But the prison also contained numerous communists and Soviet officers accused of being disloyal to the Party. Later, Soviet Military Tribunals sentenced the vast majority of prisoners to long terms of forced labour. After the SED Party dictatorship collapsed, it was possible to apply for rehabilitation. The Russian military Director of Public Prosecutions has found that nearly all those applying to have their cases reopened were innocent.“
I asked our tour guide if she knew anyone who had been imprisoned in Hohenschönhausen, and when she said she did, I asked who it was. She told me that her father had been captured after being caught with a letter reporting his dangerous and often lethal work conditions to a foreign news source. He was imprisoned in Hohenschönhausen for eight years.
The prisoners were usually kidnapped off the street, in vans such as the one seen below. The vans typically had some sort of logo on the side disguising their true identity. People would disappear off the side of the street on their way home or to work, and as no one knew the location of the prison, they were not recovered unless they were released. In the almost 40 years that it was running, not one single prisoner escaped, and they rarely resisted their captors.
After the prison tour, I was emotionally exhausted. I have never been in such a horrible place, and it had a devastating effect on my mental state. We had free time after the tour to explore Berlin and see anything that we liked, but my friends and I chose to recuperate with a nice dinner instead. The sun set just after the tour ended, and after we had finished eating at an unremarkable Mexican restaurant, we headed back to the hotel for a nap.
That night, I participated in a bar crawl with most of the other Californians. The crawl was put on by a nearby hotel, and somewhere around 70 or so people participated. It turned out to be more of a club crawl, as we only visited one bar, and we received a free shot at each location. This would have been great, but the drink was pretty awful at every stop (except for the Southern Comfort with ginger ale at the Postbahnhof). I recommend something like this if you are in a new city and looking to explore and meet new people. The only downside was that it took around 20-30 minutes to walk from each club to the next, and in one case we had to take a subway. It was drizzling off and on that night, so any buzz I gained at the previous venue was washed away by the rain. Nevertheless, I had fun, and saw parts of Berlin that I would have otherwise not seen. We arrived back at the hotel just before 6am.
We spent the next day, Sunday, traveling back to our respective cities in Baden-Württemberg. I arrived back in Tübingen just before 21:00, and got a much-needed night’s sleep back in my delightfully comfortable bed.
I am not a fan of large cities, but I love Berlin. As the capital of Germany, it is home to around 3.5 million people, but it doesn’t feel that large, and I never felt crowded. There is so much to do and see in Berlin, and I really hope to return one day, because I know that I barely scratched the surface.
My experience with CSU IP has been phenomenal, and this Berlin trip was a crowning moment. Everything was planned and executed beautifully, and I absolutely loved not having to think about when to leave or what trains to catch. Our program coordinators are wonderful and capable, and having reliable leaders makes a huge difference during a trip like this. Additionally, my fellow study abroad-ers are great company. Traveling with them has been awesome, and I didn’t realize how much I missed being together with everyone at once. Studying abroad has built a unique sense of camaraderie amongst us, and wandering around Berlin with everyone was a great experience. I cannot emphasize enough how rewarding it is to study abroad; if you are considering it, then do yourself a favor and APPLY!
Over 4,000 words later, and I believe I am finished summarizing Berlin – finally. I hope I was able to provide a little insight, as well as effectively convey the charm that a city like Berlin has to offer. I am currently spending time with my mom, who is visiting me from California. We have been up to all kinds of things, including some mischief here in Germany and a Christmas trip to Switzerland, and in two hours we will be on our way to Brussels, Belgium, and then off to London. Stay tuned for my post about our adventures!
Thanks for reading, and until next time, tschüss!