Day 13 – Berlin and D Day
Ok, so not the actual D Day. But D Day for us as it was Results Day! And… drum roll please. We are both going to graduate in September with 1st Class Degrees.
We were up early again as we had booked to go up to the dome on top of the Reichstag building. The views were amazing and it’s been designed as a spiral ramp complete with audioguide to talk you through what you can actually see at the various points. At the bottom was a timeline of the building showing you what it was used for pre, during and post the war along with pictures to accompany it. Its main focus was on the politicians, so it was interesting to see it from a different perspective. The whole building itself follows the forward thinking German way of treating bioenergy. From the solar panels on the roof that are completely disguised by the design of the building, to the mirror centre which directs sunlight down into the main chamber below so they don’t need to have unnatural lights, the heat from the building is recirculated rather that allowed to escape and the whole building uses biodiesel for everything.
In the afternoon we went to the Hohenschoenhausen Memorial which was a former remand prison after the war. It started with a 20 minutes film which told us what happened here after the war, which was very helpful as Jack and I didn’t know a lot about the Stazi. We were then collected by our tour guide who was very knowledgeable and answered everything very honestly. We had read on trip advisor that some of the people taking tours are former prisoners and she was able to share snippets of their stories with us as well. Some of them were horrendous, from the lady who was forced to take abortion pills, the woman whose husband had spied on her for 8 years (they were still married and living together when she found out), to the young 15 year old boy who was subjected to horrendous beatings, cracked within three days and was forced to sign confessions in Russian. There was even a former Stazi prisoner who was kept in a solitary cell for 7 years after trying to escape to the West. The Stazi had files on everyone and after their demise even our tour guides parents were asked if they wanted to see their files; they refused, but many were amazed at what they found out. The prison was firstly started in the basement or submarine as it was called by the inmates by the Soviets. Later the Stazi took over and they moved to a larger complex and took away the beatings focusing solely on mental torture as too many people were dying from the horrible conditions. Not many people knew what was actually happening here and anyone who was picked up and taken to the prison in the small van pictured below was driven around for hours before reaching the prison so as to make them completely unaware they were still in Berlin. The surrounding area was made up of Stazi officers and their families, so no one really even wandered by to raise questions. The inmates were subject to horrendous torture and interrogations which were played out with good cop and bad cops so as to get as much out of people as possible. People were even kidnapped from Western Germany and taken to the prison, so no one was safe. East Germany was notoriously poor; however, this prison was one of the few places that was profitable as they were selling prisoners to the West. Some people were so desperate to get out of East Germany, they even broke the law to be locked up and tortured in the hope that West Germany would buy them.
Sadly, and all too familiarly, nobody from the prison was ever held accountable for their actions and some of the Stazi officers even still lived nearby. One of the good cop types even later met one of his prisoners and they married. One of her colleagues even bumped into and confronted one of his interrogators in the supermarket.
We then headed back home to get ready to go out for to celebrate our results. We went to an incredible Indian restaurant called Bombay, not too far from our campsite. After stuffing our faces with far too much food and alcohol we rolled home.
Day 14 – Berlin
We decided to have a chill morning on what was our final full day in Berlin. After lunch we followed the wall the opposite way to the other morning. This led us to the memorial centre and the wall park. The centre plays two different films, both 15 minutes long. The first gives you a brief description and timeline from the end of the war leading up to the building of the wall. It shows you real life footage that has been collected through the years, including footage of people jumping out of buildings to make it across the border, people digging tunnels, and even one soldier who jumped the barb wire. Prior to the wall being built a 6th of the population left East Germany, in order to maintain the population a decision was made to build a wall. The president even during the wall being built gave a press conference denying that a wall was being built. In the end a total of 12,000 people were employed purely to guard the border. The second film is an animation which details exactly what went into building and maintaining the wall and ensuring that no one was able to get through it. It shows you the various barriers; trip wire, dogs, watch towers, anti-vehicle obstacles, strips of 14 inch nails and the wall itself.
The stretch of park alongside the centre has then recreated parts of the walls with markers, alongside putting down circular plaques to note the places where all of the incidents happened. This particular stretch, like the one we walked through a couple of days ago also cut through a graveyard; 1000 graves were moved to make way for the wall. This is the place where all of the people killed at the wall are commemorated.
Just up from here is a documentation centre, which again was free to enter. It had details, photos, interviews and objects from the time of the wall, as well as a tall viewing platform to oversee the part of the wall that has been completely recreated.
At one point in the park there was a row of houses with the front doors in East Berlin and the back windows were in West Berlin; whole families were able to escape within the first few days of the wall being built, one family even jumped from the fourth floor window. After realising how many people had escaped the rest of the families were evacuated and the windows bricked up. The stretch was one of the narrowest and therefore was the place where the most tunnels were. Hundreds of people escaped from East Berlin through these tunnels.
To finish our afternoon we went for a walk around Alexanderplatz to the Otto Weidt museum. It is not listed on any of the must see museums or tourist lists; however, it was probably one of our favourite. It detailed the story of Otto who when he became blind learnt how to make brushes. He then set up a factory employing mainly Jew deaf and blind people and taught them how to make brushes. In the build up to the war the Nazi’s were heavily involved in the factory and Otto constantly bribed Gestapo officers in order to keep his workers. He then heavily dedicated his time to helping save as many Jewish people as possible and with the help of some close friends succeeded in saving quite a number of people through hiding them. The museum took you through the personal story of some of the people he tried to save. The factory was due to be raided in early 1943; however, Otto receive a tip off and shut the factory for the day. The man who gave him the tip off was later arrested and sent to a camp; Otto sent him food parcels which allowed his to stay alive. Later that year the factory was raided for a second time and all of the Jewish workers were sent to various concentration camps. At this point Otto was hiding a family of 4 in the windowless room at the end of the factory, they too were taken and Otto was arrested. He was later released with no charge, which is believed to have happened due to the amount of times he bribed Gestapo officers with money. The family owned a brush factory in the North of Berlin and when Jewish people were no longer allowed to own businesses it was sold off for a fraction of its worth and were sent to work for Otto. I believe he hid them as under different circumstances the story could have been too close to home. The most amazing story was that of Alice Licht who was given a job by Otto in 1941. In 1943, he hides her and her parents; however, they are all taken in the raid. The family were deported to Theresienstadt and later the Auschwitz. On the way to Auschwitz, Alice writes a postcard to Otto which she throws out of the train. Someone finds it and posts it! Otto then goes to Auschwitz to offer his brushes for sale, finds where Alice is and gets a message to here through a Polish worker that he has left clothes, money and medicine for her. The camp is disbanded in January 1945 and Alice escapes, making her way back to Berlin to witness the end of the war in Otto Weidt’s apartment. My aim now is to learn German so I can come back and read all of the letters in the display cabinets, most of which weren’t translated into English.
The area where the museum was also had the highest concentration of plaques commemorating the lives of Jew’s who lived in the houses and were deported. We saw the first set of these plaques in Maastricht, where we didn’t know what they were for. We saw a full range in this area, from a baby who wasn’t even a year old, a 70 year old man to an entire family of 5, all murdered in concentration camps. This area is where the new synagogues was built after the war. We have also noticed that alongside the Jewish museum, the new synagogue has constant police protection.