With colorful graffiti, modern architecture, and wide open streets everywhere, Berlin is an amazing place to be. The people are really cool, too: yesterday while on a long metro ride, I struck up a conversation with a woman who’d lived in West Berlin about her experience on the day the Berlin Wall fell, and of her opinions on Angela Merkel. She said she’d sat in shock for about an hour when she saw what happened on TV, because for so long the wall had become a normal thing for her: “I didn’t realize how abnormal it was until it fell,” she said. As for Angela Merkel, the woman had a positive opinion of her. “Many people think she isn’t strong or assertive enough, but I think her tactfulness is a good thing. You can’t have someone like Trump when you’re dealing with Syria!”
However, this morning, we had a much more somber experience. First, we ventured to the Grunewald S-Bahn station memorial on the outer western part of Berlin. In 1941 and 1942, trains carrying Berlin’s Jews left from this station to deport them to death camps and ghettos such as Auschwitz and Minsk. Along the railway there were plaques bearing the amount of people deported, the date they were deported, and where they were taken. Stevie, our tour guide, told us an interesting story about a survivor from Theresienstadt who she’d taught English to. Because the woman’s husband had been a doctor, they’d had a leg up on escaping murder.
Afterwards, we travelled to the site of the Wannsee conference. On January 20, 1942, high-ranking members of the SS and the Nazi party met in a mansion to discuss specifically how to eliminate all European Jews, what they called “the Final Solution.” It was horrifying to realize that the Nazis had meticulously planned out the murders, down to the dates and the construction of the death camps. Their detailed reports are partly why we have so much information about them today. “This is why Holocaust deniers are in such a minority–it happened,” said our tour guide. He explained the different reasons leading up to the Wannsee conference, starting with anti-Semetism that dated back to the Middle Ages and what he called “biological racism”–the idea that Jews were biologically less evolved and inferior to the “Aryan” race. I couldn’t believe how easy it was for the Nazis to successfully blame the Jewish people, an extremely small but generally affluent population, for the entire ruin of Germany after World War I.
We then travelled to the Glienicke bridge, the infamous bridge featured in “the Bridge of Spies.” During the Cold War the bridge connected West Berlin with Potsdam. Only diplomats could cross the bridge freely. It was amazing to walk across the bridge and literally stand on an object that had divided a country for so long. After getting back on the bus, we took a tour of Potsdam (including the Dutch quarter) and stopped by the Sanssouci Palace, the former summer palace of King Frederick the Great, King of Prussia. Directly across from Sanssouci Palace was the New Palace, which was built in 1763 by King Frederick as well. Continuing our royal tour, we ventured to the Charlottenhof Palace nearby, which was the summer residence of King Frederick the Great’s palace in the 1740s. After listening to our tour guide Stevie’s descriptions of him, I found King Frederick to be an extremely interesting character. As he was somewhat of a humanist, Frederick was good friends with the French philosopher Voltaire, who was the longest resident of Frederick’s palace. Also, since Frederick was credited for introducing the potato to Germany, people were leaving potatoes on his grave!
Our last visit in Potsdam was to Cecilienhof, the former palace of the last of the Prussian royalty and the site of the Potsdam conference. (The Potsdam conference was the conference between the leaders of the UK, USA, and the Soviet Union in order to determine the post-WWII order, including reparations, borders, and war crimes). To stand in the very room that the Big Three–Churchill, Truman, and Stalin–had stood in 65 years ago was incredible. It was amazing to think that the decisions made in that room led to the birth of modern Europe. All in all, it was a great day.
This post will be my last for the trip. I couldn’t be more thankful to have gone to Europe this summer. I’ve been at the right place at the right time for so many things: at the EU on the day of Brexit, at the Swedish Parliament when they passed a controversial refugee bill, in Paris during the Euros, and everywhere in between to witness European reactions to events like the Nice attacks and the coup in Turkey. Getting up close so many security, political, and humanitarian challenges has been enlightening. There has not been a day of this program when I haven’t gone, “Oh my god,” in response to something I learned or saw. Auf Wiedersehen, Europe! Je T’aime!