Posted by: vlibrizzi | October 6, 2009

A weekend in the city of the 20th century: Berlin (Days 3 and 4)

Day 3: Checkpoint Charlie, the Berlin Wall, and the Reichstag

DSC_0311On Sunday morning we were ready to start learning more about the time when Germany was divided into East and West sections. So, first we visited the Checkpoint Charlie museum. According to our guidebook, it was supposed to be a very informative museum with lots of historical objects about the time when Germany was divided. 

But, while the museum did have some poignant escape stories and very interesting objects (check out the car to the left in the front of which East Germans would hide in order to get over the border to West Germany), it was also hot, crowded, and badly organized.

We would wait in long lines to read an account of a person who tried to escape over the wall, but the accounts were very poorly translated into English, often repetitive, and were written in very small letters on the walls. 

DSC_0312The worst part of our visit to the museum….we paid more than double to get into it compared to any other museum we visited this weekend! It was a bona-fide tourist trap. Very disappointing.

Since we were so bummed about the Checkpoint Charlie museum, C. and I decided not to go to the next museum we had planned to visit that day (for fear that we were perhaps “museum-ed out”) and instead walked around the city, stopping every so often to look down at the ground to see if we were crossing what once was the Berlin Wall  (in the photo to the left you can see a sign in the ground indicating where the Wall stood).

Although it was quite cold, it wasn’t raining (for once), so we had a nice time visiting the outdoor Topography of Terror (informational posters about the Nazi regime outside of the now-bulldozed site which housed the former SS headquarters), then walking around the fun Prenzlauerburg area of town, and then stopping at a great Indian restaurant for a quick lunch. We were getting a bit tired of brats and schnitzel so we decided to change things up a bit 🙂

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After lunch, we were energized and ready to do more sightseeing. First we visited a section of the Berlin Wall called the East Side Gallery. It is a nearly mile long stretch of the remaining wall that has been turned into an outdoor art gallery. All of the wall paintings represent ideas of peace, equality, freedom, and tolerance, and are changed every couple of years. We even saw one artist working on his mural while we walked by! You can see me in the photo to the left standing next to one of the paintings I liked the most. It was a great thing to see!

 

 

DSC_0370Then we walked over to the Reichstag, the building that houses the German parliament (photo to the left). It was called the Reichstag (house of the empire) when Germany was an empire, but today it is officially called the Bundestag (house of the people) since Germany is now a democratic country. 

Visiting a parliamentary building is not always something that is top on my list, but we trusted some friends who visited Berlin and told us that it was their favorite activity in the city. 

 

 

DSC_0346And I’m so glad we did! Although we weren’t able to visit any of the chambers (it was Sunday night so everything was closed), we did have the opportunity to climb to the top of the newly built glass dome.  The Reichstag was badly damaged by fire in the ’30s, almost destroyed in World War II, and then left dormant while the West German capital was moved to Bonn — so the reconstruction effort, headlined by the dome, is one of the true points of national pride since reunification.  It was only completed in 1999.

The architect of the dome wanted to make a structure that was environmentally-friendly so the dome is equipped with solar panels and an air circulating contraption that lets out air through the top. 

Tourists are able to walk to the top of the dome around the edges, while listening to an audioguide that points out all of the sights of Berlin out the windows. Once at the top, you have a wonderful 360 degree view of Berlin. Beautiful!

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It had turned into a beautiful (if a bit chilly) night, so we walked down from the Reichstag back to the Brandenburg Gate to see it lit up at night.  We quickly snapped this photo. The weekend’s festivities were winding down and the crowds were thinning, so it was a quieter time to be around the famous gate. 

Then, we went out to dinner at a wonderful, highly recommended Turkish restaurant called Hasir. According to some, there are so many Turkish people living in Berlin that the city is sometimes called “little Istanbul.” Well, having the yummy hummus, lamb, and turkish coffee at this restaurant made us want to put Istanbul high up on our list of places that we’d like to visit.

Day 4: A visit to the Jewish Museum Berlin

 Sadly, we only had a few hours in Berlin on Monday (we had an afternoon flight back to Paris), so after a quick breakfast at our great hotel, Pension Peters in Savignyplatz, we headed over to the Jewish Museum Berlin. 

Visitors first enter the museum through the modern wing—a collection of three corridors (axes) focusing on the Jewish experience in living through and trying to survive the Nazi regime: the Axis of the Holocaust, the Axis of Exile, and the Axis of Continuity. 

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First, we visited the Axis of the Holocaust. After a long wing lined with a display of possessions and stories of individual victims and their families, visitors enter a thin, somber cell with only a small amount of light coming out from the top. It is cold, damp, dark, and eerily quiet in the cell. One easily feels trapped and claustrophobic. 

Then, we visited the Axis of Exile. This outdoor garden with an slanted surface and tall concrete towers with trees coming out of the top (see photo to the left), makes one feel disoriented and off-balance, just like a Jewish person in exile must have felt in a strange land.

 

 

DSC_0383Finally, we visited the Axis of Continuity, or the long stairway that leads into the rest of the museum. We walked through many “voids” or empty rooms which reflected the lives lost from the Holocaust, but the most moving “void” to us was the Memory Void (or “falling leaves”). In this room there were metal faces on the floor (photo to the left) which you were to walk upon. As you walked, you were supposed to think that the faces would sound like crushed leaves, but instead, when they clanged together they made an awful metallic sound that echoed through the corridors. You felt lost in a sea of suffering faces. It was such a moving exhibit.
Remarkably, the three axes are really just the beginning of a visit to the museum.  And one of the best things about the museum is that, while it of course acknowledges the struggles of the Holocaust and Nazi period, it is not overwhelmed by them.  In total, it feels like more of a celebration of and education about Jewish culture in Germany.  Through interactive exhibits (I learned how to write my name in Hebrew, for example), we learned all about the culture, history, and religion of Jewish people. It was a wonderful, eye-opening museum that you must go to if you’re ever in Berlin. Just wonderful!

Then, we had one last currywurst (we’ll miss them!) and boarded a plane for Paris. As we sat on the plane, I couldn’t help but think how much history there is in Berlin. It’s a city that really does represent the 20th century—both the very good and evil sides, and with a hopeful ending as well.  It’s nice to know that the city, now a prospering place, is trying to hold on to its history and share it with its visitors.

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