By Katie Olleman
Friday marked our third whole day in Berlin. In the morning, we took a break from absorbing the hard 20th century history of Berlin and instead enjoyed how Germany has built upon its past. We went to visit the Reichstag. Like visiting the United States Capitol Building, security is tight. While we were free to take pictures within the building, we could not take any of the security checkpoint areas.
The Reichstag is a fascinating example of blending the old and the new. It has served as Germany's capitol through many rough times. The building first became damaged in a fire, which the Nazis blamed upon their political enemies including the Communists as well as the Jews. Then, the building became further damaged over the course of WWII so that at points throughout the building the walls are patchworks of new and old materials. Whilst occupied by Russia, the walls became graffitied upon by soldiers of many backgrounds. Instead of wiping away this graffiti, it has been preserved as a reminder of the occupation. The result is a powerful commentary upon Germany's recent history.
Crowning the Reichstag is the iconic glass dome. It of course symbolizes Germany's resolve to maintain transparency and never repeat the atrocities of the past. Beyond this, the dome is a masterpiece of beauty. Visitors such as ourselves may go up and peer through the glass roof below the dome at parliament. A stalactite of mirrors hangs down in which you may see your reflection as well as those below and above you fragmented many times. Then we climbed the double helix ramps up to the top. The view of the city was stunning as snow fell lightly upon the frozen land. Berlin's starkly forested parks spread out below, the Rhine wound along under low bridges, and the many cranes of Berlin's current building projects are peppered throughout the city. The Reichstag truly gives one a full perspective on Germany's past, present, and future.
For the afternoon, we met up with James from Checkpoint Charlie to visit Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. However, we first needed to fetch lunch. During a brief layover between our bus out to the train station and our train, Donna sent all 15 of us students rushing to fetch lunch. However, upon realizing that there really was only one small sandwich place in the station to buy food, she instead stepped to the front of the line and told the lady working behind the counter that we'd like to take all the sandwiches behind the glass--about 20 sandwiches for 15 students and 3 adults. The cashier was a little stunned but happily obliged with selling her entire lunch stock. I heard rumor that the cook may have been a bit surprised to be called back already to make up more sandwiches.
Then we faced the cold afternoon and the chilling events of Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp with James as our guide. The camp was designed in the shape of a triangle and was a proto-design for all future Concentration camps. However, its size proved small and difficult to expand, so the triangle design was abandoned in future camps. Initially, it was used to house Nazi political opponents such as members of communist parties, but eventually practically every group which the Nazis persecuted entered Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp.
James emphasized that since the camp was in East Germany during the Cold War Era, when the visitor's center was first opened, the Soviets emphasized the atrocities the Nazis perpetrated upon the Communists. From this I discovered rather disturbingly that prior to WWII, both the Communist and Nazi parties in Germany had private armies which would brutalize and take hostage members of each other's parties during relative peace time.
The entire day within the camp was difficult. We saw reconstructions of the buildings that the Jews were housed in; the high security prison for political prisoners as well as camp dissidents, the barren land upon which the prisoners worked, and multiple places of mass murder (although Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp was more oriented towards housing prisoners until they died rather than directly executing them). As the temperatures were in the low teens farenheight, we also found ourselves battling cold while learning outside and just being able to warm up when James expertly timed visits into the reconstructed buildings. It's sobering to realize that each of us was bundled far warmer than those interred at the camp and that the temperatures would have dropped far lower than those we experienced.
On the long train ride home, James continued to tell us more about the camp and answer any questions we had up until the very last moment before our paths diverged. We were sad to say goodbye to him as he had been a wonderful, informative guide all throughout our time in Germany. Then we all bundled to the hostel where we enjoyed a good dinner and a free evening (which I spent some of playing cards with friends) to recuperate before our next adventure. - This time to Gottingen!