Cities / Towns Visited: 32
Countries Visited: 11
Steps Taken Today: 17,186
Steps Taken Around the World: 1,256,747
As we had discussed the previous day, we arose, fetched some breakfast from the supermarket, and headed straight back to the Topography of Terror, to finish what we had started the previous evening. Although we were bathing in the warm light of a bright new day, the topic became no easier to face. Doubly so, because the section I was picking up at explained the arrest, torture, and murder of homosexual men by the Nazi’s. As a member of the LGBTI community, it hit particularly close to home. Even though very few homosexual women went through the same atrocities, these men are still my brothers, and with quite a number of gay men close to my heart in my life I can’t imagine losing them because a few twisted people decide they’re not worthy of life. They were shown prejudice and hatred, simply because their show of love would not result in more taxpaying, brainwashable children; and the worst part was that the Nazi’s were proud of their sheer intolerance of those they deemed ‘undesirable’. By the time I muddled through the text of the remainder of the exhibit I was thoroughly emotionally drained.
Having taken enough of a self inflicted emotional battering for a second, we continued on for a little bit of lighter sightseeing. We quickly swung past Hitler’s Bunker, which for those of you who don’t know, is now simply a car park, with an information board briefly explaining its location, discovery, excavation, and subsequent filling in. All I could think upon looking at it was ‘What a fitting way to deal with its presence’. To be honest the board is more than he deserves, and its nice to see everyone just getting on with their lives on top of his place of death as if he was of no importance. To make a shrine of it would have been exactly what he would have wanted; to be immortalised whether infamous or not, would have been his dream, and to rob him of that is the best response we can have.
At this point I had pulled it together enough to continue, and we had one more confronting destination for the day; the Holocaust Memorial. Now for those of you who have never been, and never seen pictures of the memorial, it is made of row after row of rectangular concrete stelae, of varying heights from 8 inches to 15 feet. As you approach, the sheer scale of the monument, which is around the size of a full city block, mirrors the sheer scale of the atrocities carried out against the Jews during the Nazi period. It was infuriating to see countless people sitting, standing, and taking selfies atop the blocks. For about the hundredth time on this trip I just wanted to whop these people over the head. With clear signs requesting people stay off of them, it was nothing but disrespect and a serious case of ‘well they are, so I can too’ leading these people atop this sombre art installation. By all means take photos of the work from ground level, post it online, yell at the top of our lungs ‘Never again!’, but you don’t need your grinning face in the photo to get that point across. Repressing my internal rage we headed into the visitor centre. As you pass through, you are faced with multiple displays that truly humanise the trauma. From the six large photos of Jewish victims, one to represent a million who were killed; to a room with panels showing notes and letters from some of those who were imprisoned and killed; letters to friends and loved ones expressing their fear, and saying their goodbyes; letters that should never of had to be written. The room after this had twelve panels, each with the story of a Jewish family, from twelve different countries around Europe, and the tragic tale of what happened to them. Looking at their family photo, it is insane to find out that more often than not half or even all of them were captured and murdered in concentration camps. The second last room has some seating and as you perch in the darkened room a film runs through names, ages, nationality, and place and cause of death (if known) of every one of those we know were lost to the hands of these madmen. If you were to listen to all of them non-stop you would literally be there for years. The final room has information on all of the large concentration camps, and figures of the death counts where they have them. It is crazy to read that 3 million people were killed at Auschwitz alone, and that at some points they were killing 10,000 people a day. I can’t even explain the emotion I walked back out to the street with; I’m not even sure there is a word for it, but despondent is as close as I can get.
From here we moved away from talk and images of death and quickly passed by the Brandenburg Gate. The historic old city gate with its Grecian inspired pillars is topped with the goddess of victory, Victoria, on a chariot pulled by four horses. It was originally built in the 18th century as a monument of peace. Despite this, it has had a tumultuous history, with Napoleon conquering Berlin at one point and taking the statue for Paris. It was eventually returned though, after his defeat, making the significance of the goddess even more appropriate. Then during the Cold War, when the gate stood on the east side of the wall, the GDR had large banners hung down from it when JFK was making a speech in front of it on the western side expressing his support for the country. This was, for many across the world, the first time they saw the extent of which the east was trying to hide their people from the trappings of functioning democracy. This simple act triggered an even stronger show of solidarity from the rest of the western world in support of those from the east who wished to escape; if communism was working, there would be no need to hide its competition.
Having a quick lunch of Bratwurst and fries from a little food van just down from the gate we headed towards the Tiergarten. We paused outside the Reichstag (German parliament house) momentarily; yet another government building which was once hung with the flags and insignia of the Nazi’s, and like many beautiful buildings is this city, it was almost completely destroyed during WWII. It has now been rebuilt with the addition of a giant glass dome on top in which you can go up for a view of the city, but only if you make an appointment some time in advance. Moving on through the garden, we slowed our day down, basking in the dappled sunlight, breathing in the cool clean air, and absorbing the peaceful feeling of being surrounded by life after spending our morning with the stories of the dead. In order to recharge we took the liberty of slipping off our shoes and laying tranquilly in the grass for half an hour or so; listening to the wind rustle the leaves of the trees, and watching the clouds float lazily in the sky above. Nature heals the soul, and I was in need of healing.
Eventually, the time came to move on once more, to our final stop; the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. Now, nothing says sombre acknowledgement of the past like the ruins of a church in which only the tower remains, its spire cut short. The rest of the building was destroyed by British bombs in 1943. The choice was made not to restore the church to its former glory, mainly due to financial restrictions post war; but to be honest I like it better as it is. It is the architectural version of proudly showing your scars. As the bells rang out the hour, it was then that the truly haunting nature of this house of god shows itself. You never realise how much the sound of the bell relies on the shape and structure of the building surrounding it, and as its sound reverberated through the hollow shell of the tower, out the unenclosed roof, and through the open sides of the chapel, it was impossible not to acknowledge that it does, in fact, sounds just as wounded as it looks.
As the daylight dwindled over another jam packed day, we headed back to a homecooked meal and a well earned rest. As I thought of all I’d seen, read, and learned today, I couldn’t help but notice that, although my heart had been pulled at and torn apart, it was putting itself back together in such a way that it was larger than before. I guess what I’m trying to say as I wax lyrical, is that, not unexpectedly, my historical crash course had left me feeling much more empathetic towards those of whom I had previously held little knowledge. It is commonly accepted that education is the best tool with which to fight the plights of the human condition, from racism to xenophobia, homophobia to sexism; the more we know, the more we understand; the more we understand the less we fear; and the less we fear the less we hate. I have said it before, and I will say it time and time again, the best way to learn tolerance and empathy towards those different to us is to travel, to immerse ourselves in their cultures, to walk in their shoes. My journey will not be complete until I have worn so many different shoes that my heart has been stripped of prejudice.