Thursday, 25 July 2013

Berlin, A Tragically Scarred Beauty

Craig Writes;
18/07/13. A seven hour train ride and what did I have to show for it. Four repeat episodes of The Walking Dead, season three, two rounds of smoked salmon, philly cheese and capers and an hour of writing. We had a brief moment of excitement when two German policemen stormed the train to drag a small man of eastern european descent from the train and bundle him away. Very mysterious. I don't think I was the only one looking to make sure he hadn't left behind a backpack.
When we finally arrived in Berlin we were picked up by Petra, the gatekeeper for the apartment we were staying in. She very kindly offered to transport us from the train station in her early model Mercedes station wagon and helped us to cram, shove and push our luggage into the boot. We're very excited to be here in Berlin.
We are staying in what used to be the old West Berlin. It is quite surreal to pass old buildings with chunks blown from them and the staccato spread of bullet holes strafed across the broad stretches of red brick walls making them look like giant join the dots puzzles. 

Even the wall across from our kitchen window had been shot up
19/07/13 There is a one kilometre Turkish street market that operates twice a week on our street only 100 metres from our apartment. Such an amazing variety of the freshest looking produce.  If you lived here this is where you'd be shopping. Meats, fruit and veggie, clothes, shoes, fabrics etc etc. Brilliant.
After settling in we went straight back out and hopped on the local metro for a trip down to the main train station to book our next few train legs and got our first glimpse of a couple of neo nazis. Just a couple of young innocuous young fellas with shaved heads, peacock mohawks and bovver boots. These lads actually looked a bit uncomfortable, not like the gang of ten I was to meet a couple of days later on the same train. 
On the trip back we found this brilliant organic shop. Look around if you ever get here.  The organic stuff, while not as cheap as the US organic range you'll get in somewhere like Wholefoods, is still way cheaper than in Australia. Then it was back to the apartment and time to be drinking some Doppel Hirsch, the 2012 World Beer Cup Gold Award Winner, $3 for half a litre, thank you very much. So good.

You know your in Germany when your Bratwurst is bigger than your bun
Just a very small sample off the amazing markets right on our doorstep
If this is what they call the good stuff, what do they call the crap stuff?
20/07/13. What a great day. Went for lunch at the Weinhenstephaner restaurant and had a couple of my favourite Weinhenstephaner beers with a fantastic lunch of sausage, mustard and potato salad. Christina had the most amazing roast pork with sauerkraut and potato dumplings. The walking tour we had booked was leaving from this restaurant at 2pm which gave us 45 minutes to eat and drink, just enough time. 
The famous WeinerSchnifer beer
If you dont know which sausage to order... order them all
The tour was amazing, We saw the last remnants of the Berlin Wall, we stood over the remains of Hitlers Bunker which is now a car park, I though a set of public toilets over the top would have been more appropriate, we walked through The Brandenburg Gate, saw Checkpoint Charlie and visited the haunting and aptly named The Museum of the Murdered Jews. 

The longest stretch of what remains of The Berlin Wall
Many a villain/hero have walked through the Brandenburg Gates. Now we have too.
The haunting Museum of the Murder Jews tells it like it was
A car park sits above Hitlers Bunker, it should have been a public toilet
CheckPoint Charlie
We went to Bebelplatz where the nazi's started the book burning, the nazi Air Ministry which miraculously escaped being bombed and we saw the Topography of Terror, the strip of land where the three buildings that once housed the SS, The Gestapo and the SA all once stood. Our tour guide was excellent and so full of knowledge. This country has undergone so much self inflicted terror and hardship over the last 100 years it is amazing it is still standing. One cant help but reflect that the small diminutive man who couldn't win an arm wrestle with a teddy bear , through the sheer magnetism of his personality and some political cunning could coerce the majority of the population of a country into believing that it was perfectly acceptable to exterminate an entire race of human being. Could so many of histories tragedies like this have even been considered possible without the consent of the average man. At what stage is it ok to validate your actions by saying, "I was just taking orders", at what stage does the average person say, this is not acceptable. How powerful would these sick and evil men be  if in the beggining enough ordinary people just said, no.

20/07/13 Great plans to go out to Potsdam, the home to Prussian Kings, Princes and German Emperors and home of the famous 1945 Potsdam Conference where the spoils of WWII were to be carved up between England, France, America and Russia and effectively, start the Cold War. Unfortunately, young Charlie had a fever and wasn't up to it so I played baby sitter and Christina and Callum went. Bummer.

Christina writes: After all the would we or wouldn't we go to Potsdam this morning, Callum and I made a mad dash for the train and arrived at the meeting place for the walking tour with only a minute to spare. It took about an hour by regional train to get there, and we started our tour at the Spy Bridge.

A previous border between East and West, and a place for spy-Swapping
We crossed the bridge and saw where the former wall stood, and then our guide said, 
"We will walk through a park now towards the Palaces - it is a Nudist area, so you will see lots of naked people..." Callum just looked at me and said "What!?!??"
And yes we saw lots of naked people, like the Nude Bomb had just gone off. I said to Callum, "Dad is going to be so bummed he missed this" and I snapped a few photos for show and tell.

Then off to see some palaces, have some lunch and enjoy Potsdam. 
Cecilienhof, Home of the Potsdam conference
The spot where this famous photo of Stalin, Truman and Churchill was taken in 1945
Sanssouci Palace
The gardens and buildings were beautiful, but as funny as it may sound, walking through the Nudist colony was the highlight of my day.

Craig writes:
21/07/13 Christina and the boys stayed in today and I ventured out to hit some museums. Unfortunately of the two I wanted to see one was closed because it was Monday and The other had a massive cue. As keen as I was to see the 8th Gate of Babylon that Alexander the Great rode through, two hours was too long. I moved on and wandered the streets till I got to The Topography of Terror. It is a vast strip of vacant land cover in bluestone. Previous to it's last incarnation as an ornate Prussian Palace but in the end it was it's use as the headquarters for Henrich Himmlers SS and the dreaded Gestapo that saw this grand and regal building demolished and returned to dust when the Russians finally liberated Berlin. What is left today is a walk along the only remaining section of wall left. A section of the basement area where prisoners were tortured and executed. There is a promenade of photos and detailed explanations of who was responsible and who were some of the victims. There is also a vast white museum housing a more detailed look at the place, it's people and it's joyous demise and destruction. The section on the Nuremberg trials was interesting. So many got what they deserved and found their fate at the end of the hangman's noose. But too many also seemed to have negotiated their way to a light to non existent sentence. Weaving patterns of liars, deflecting blame or simply by informing on their previous cmradess, they manage to leave the war behind them, disappearing into society to live out fruitful and full lives while the souls of their victims scream out in unheard torment for justice.

Signs of the war are everywhere 
Are the bullet holes kept as a reminder to the German people?
It's not hard to imagine the running battles that occurred
As the Russians marched in and took control
22/07/13. Another day to myself. I was off to Sachsenhausen Memorial and Museum, site of the first operating concentration camp responsible for the torture, gassing, hanging and subsequent burning of over 90,000 people. 
For a jew, these gates to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp were one way
One foot on this bluemetal path meant instant death, many tested it
It was from here that the systematic murder and commercialisation of the wholesale slaughter of millions of people through the chain of  other concentration camps including Auschwitz, Trebiana and Dacha was coordinated. All while the people of sleepy little Oranienburg, 40klms from Berlin, went about their day to day business of tending their gardens, going to work and raising their children. 
The SS could murder all day and walk the 100 metres home to play happy families
The SS lived in apartment blocks only metres away from the camp. They would go to work, torture, maim and murder and then clock off to be home in time to throw the ball with little Fritz before going in for dinner. 
I saw the "Green Monster", the bright green painted mess room where the SS were fed and entertained by the prisoners. Failure to entertain or a spilt bowl of Spitschel on the wrong officer resulting in a beating for the lucky ones or strangulation on the spot for the unlucky. Their were two barracks, left, built for 120 but housing over 400. 
Two remaining barracks
The weak slept on the floor, in the filth of the stronger
The stronger got the bunks, the weak and infirmed got the floor where due to restricted access to the lavatory they often wallowed in the excrement of those above them. It was strictly survival of the fittest. There was the Gestapo section for "special" prisoners the pit they were thrown in for punishment and the three torture poles where prisoners had their hands tied behind their backs and hung of the ground, for a full day. 
Your arms would be tied behind you and you would be hung from these all day.
The infamous running track where prisoners were made to run a marathon every day to test new army boots. They were made to simply run themselves to death. It became part of daily life in 1942 to have daily hangings where the entire camp was made to watch. Failure to watch would result in you being pulled from the crowd and you too would have a noose placed around you neck and hoisted of the ground to slowly strangle to death.
The most harrowing section of the tour was section Z. This is the site where 10,000 Russians were executed over a matter of weeks in 1942, it is the site of the Death Trench, where thousands where summarily shot and there bodies stored for cremation.
Death Trenches, would run red with the blood of the dead
Inside is the remains of the small building where the gas chamber, the shooting rooms and the crematoriums still stand. Although rusted and decayed by the ravages of time, their purpose and use are still plainly visible.

This small corner  room was the gas chamber
The furnaces would run continuously to keep up with the demand
While not a pleasant experience, I am so glad to have been here to see for myself what mankind is capable of at his utmost worst. How simple family men can be brainwashed into believing that the person on the end of their boot is undeserving of life simply because they were born of a different religion, born in another country, were gay or simply enjoyed reading certain books.  This was state sponsored terror and mass murder by a democratically elected government, not the result of a military coup, and quite frankly it scares the shit out of me when you think about it.
Last night in Berlin. We feed the kids breakfast cereal and toast and peanut butter, stick them in front of their I devices, lock em in and head down the road to this great little Indian Restaurant. First time I've had a cocktail called the Swimming Pool, all rum, vodka, coconut milk and something else. I had two so I cant really remember. It was a great finish to our stay in Berlin.
The place is intriguing. There is an undercurrent just below the surface of "party town" Berlin. The people are friendly enough but you feel it wouldn't take much to set them off.  In the short time I was here I saw way too many Neo Nazi skinheads, too many buildings covered in bullet holes and shrapnel gouges and lots of graffiti  I think it's a city that if your coming to Europe you need to experience but It's not a city that embraces you. I dont' feel I need to get to know it any more than I have.                                                                           

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