Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Berlin

Is filled with history, overflowing in every step and yet very modern, for all the older architecture was destroyed in the two wars. K had been to Berlin many a times and it is one of his favourite cities so he insisted we visit it soon. And soon we did.

I'm struggling to write this post not knowing how to word it. I'm overwhelmed by the history and the struggle that the city went through time and again, and yet how it never portrays itself as victim but takes responsibility for the atrocities during WWII. Berlin is the embodiment of the consequences of war. It remembers everything. It even remembers Warsaw, the city that was completely destroyed by war.

Cold War

The first thing we did when we landed in Berlin was to head to the East Side Gallery. The Berlin Wall, my readers would recollect from history, was put up in 1961 to keep East Germans from escaping out of the communist reign into the little part of West Germany that was under the collaborated reign of the Allies, the capitalist countries of France, Britain and the US. The wall had strengthen from a barbed fence to a system of razor wire fence, followed by a death strip with snipers and then a high wall rounded off at the top to deny any grip to the escapee. When the wall came down in 1989, small segments were left standing. The largest of them was in the east, about a mile long. In 1990, artists were invited to paint murals upon one side of this wall to celebrate the reunification of Germany. But vandals destroyed these murals with tagging, and a project to clean and repaint was undertaken in 2009, but the vandals were at it again. Having visited the gallery in 2010, K was in love with it. How disappointed he was to see the state it was in now! However some non profit groups are cleaning up some of the popular murals. Here are a couple of them:



Another segment of the wall still standing along with the death strip and the razor fence is in the north. Here is the Berlin Wall Memorial remembering the 137 people that have died trying to escape, though a few died by mistake. And there is a third segment of the wall not far from Checkpoint Charlie but it is not that interesting. However, segments of the wall have be placed at strategic locations in the city, even in the most modern areas like outside a shopping mall. Surprisingly, these segments of the wall are filled with chewing gum and anything else people want to stick along with their chewing gum like metal coca cola bottle caps, wrappers, anything.

Checkpoint Charlie is nothing but a tourist spot today. It was one of the checkpoints between East and West Berlin and between the Soviet and American control of the city which became the ground zero of the Cold War. Today there is a poster of an American soldier looking into the erstwhile East Berlin and on the other side of the same poster is a Russian soldier looking into the erstwhile West Berlin.

(My dear reader, at this point I must mention that I'm currently sitting on a train to Bournemouth and next to me is a man reading a book called Alone in Berlin. So I stopped blogging to read the guardian review of the book. It seems extraordinary now after my visit to Berlin only 5 days ago. I must read it.)

At the north station near the way memorial is a remembrance of the ghost stations of Berlin. The underground metro of the city was existing even before the city was divided and it ran during the time it was divided as well. Some of the West Berlin metro lines ran through East Germany (and paid a lot for this privilege) but they could not stop at these stations. These stations were shutdown to the public, sealed off with cement. Some of them had soldiers stationed to ensure that civilians did not use this as a way to escape to West Berlin. When soldiers themselves were found escaping, the surveillance rooms that they were supposed to be in for the duty were locked from the outside to prevent them from running away. A few people managed to run away, many of them rail workers. Some of these fascinating stories of escape were captured at the north station.

In a continent where thoughout history, countries broke up time and again, it's inspiring to have a story like the reunification of Germany.

World War II

The Holocaust Memorial or the memorial for the murdered Jews of Europe who fell victim to the Nazis is built right in the middle of the city. It's a large area of an uneven surface with massive slabs of grey cement of varying heights in rows and columns. I think there are over 2700 of those slabs. Under this memorial is a small information centre. There they preserved excerpts of letters or diary entries of Jews who have been persecuted under the Nazi regime. Their words have captured not just details but emotions making it so real that a visit to this memorial leaves you with goosebumps.

The number of people and the extent to which the Jews have been persecuted is overwhelming. There are other memorials built for other groups of people who have systematically been targeted for being unGerman like the Sinti and the Roma who memorial hosts a black pool of water reflecting the dark days.

Topography of Terror is by far the most incredibly chilling experience. It's an open indoor and outdoor museum built on the land that once hosted the headquarters of the Gestapo and SS. It's just a vast open area with nothing except large placards with information and photographs. But it tells you a story. A chilling story of how Adolf Hitler came as a saviour pulling Germany out of the Great Depression only to dissolve the parliament and establish the Gestapo, the SS and Heinrich Himmler unleashing terror across Europe. Moving amongst the placards you will begin to see how small public punishments for crimes, soon transform into inhuman punishments for just being alive. A racial survey was conducted for better healthcare which finally resulted in some races being deported to what were later to become concentration camps. It was official and accepted that patients in the mental asylum have to be put to death in a gas chamber. Later this method was used as a "permanent solution" for any races considered unGerman and the extermination of the Jews and other gypsies began in a systematic fashion. The story goes on till Hitler dies, the Gestapo falls and yet it is not the end. In the confusion of war, for officials of the Gestapo it was easy to get official documents remade with a new name and a new life and escape justice. Some members of the secret police managed to get jobs in the USA's CIA and British MI6. Rightfully named, the museum is a topography of terror. I have rewritten, removed and reduced the extent of the terror that is witnessed in this museum that makes you question humanity itself.
Outside this museum is a special exhibition for the city of Warsaw, phoenix rises. The city of Warsaw (often remarked as War-saw) has seen complete and absolute destruction. The population of the city reduced from 1,300,000 to 1,000 during the WWII. The city rose from it's ashes and now is a thriving metropolis of more than 2,500,000. Here is a video that shows the extent of damage to the city that we viewed at the exhibition.


The Stumbling Blocks project is an strongly effective idea. This guy called Gunter is going around Europe and putting up small blocks on the road in front of a house or an office where a victim of the holocaust lived or worked before being deported or murdered, some of them still alive. It is incredibly impactful because you must be walking on the road, thinking of something about your life, your thoughts to your own self when all of a sudden you stumble and you look down to see what you've stumbled upon and you are reminded of an entire life probably like yours that was uprooted.

Going on to easier matters, we also visited the Reichstag where the Bundestag meets for parliamentary sessions. Having been destroyed by fire in 1933 (under unknown circumstances which led the Nazis to suspend the parliament hence never having had the Nazis convene under its roof), the Reichstag was rebuilt (after the reunification of Germany), leaving just the outside older fa├žade and inside is an entirely modern building with a glass dome through which you can see most of the city. The glass dome also has mirrors that reflect the sunlight skilfully into the area where the Bundestag meet. You can visit it for free but must book in advance and be on the guest list for security purposes. This is how the mirrored centre of the dome looks like:

We also took an alternative Berlin tour. It shows us a part of the East side gallery and some of the social activism in Berlin that has successfully driven out all capitalist companies like Starbucks, Subway and McD by breaking windows constantly till they closed shop. Every now and then, there are protests on the street the recent one being sympathetic towards the civilians in the Gaza strip. We also got a good look at some occupied squatter houses, some wagons on the erstwhile deathstrip that are currently filled with squatters and some general information on the alternative subcultures of Berlin. We also got to see some interest street art. This below is an astronaut and during the night the lights of another building throw the shadow of a flag into the astronauts hand:

Here is more mainstream street art with a ROA creation:

Our tour guide talked to us about the subculture at length taking about dislike of captalism and Media Spree and general endorsement of organisations like YAAM and the YAAM beach, etc. He also mentioned that even though the neighbourhood is poor and looks shady, the people are nice and Berlin is one of the safest cities there is.

And thus ends my essay on what I did during my long weekend in August this year.

PS:
In spite of my tour guides endorsement for the German people, I found my phone stolen off of me on the metro train. Within 2 days I got a replacement sim card from my network provider, giffgaff.com which also blocked my phone using the IMEI number and within 1 day of informing my insurance provider, Aviva, I received my replacement phone (which is most likely refurbished) that is the exact same model and make as my original phone (after an expense of £65). Basically within 48 hours of losing my phone, I was back on track.
Google was helpful as well. google.com/dashboard helped me get the IMEI of my phone which made claiming insurance easier and the AutoBackup of my pictures made sure I did not lose a single picture from Berlin and the minute I logged in on my replacement phone, my google account downloaded all my apps. 

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