Germany

Munich

Not having any luck with couch surfing (CS) hosts in Munich I found a hostel that was super cheap. They basically rented out floor space and yoga mats under a large marquee and charged only €7.50 per night. That I could afford for four nights. I was tired, even though I’d had a very lazy day on my last day in Zurich, and was in my fourth new country in two weeks. I walked along Marienplatz, the main shopping strip and tourist centre of Munich, and saw some of their iconic buildings. The city itself wasn’t all too impressive, lots of shops and that seemed about it. Nothing really grabbed me in Munich, which was ok considering I was primarily there to visit Dachau, the Concentration Camp memorial sight close to Munich (details of which will follow in a further post).

I did find one clothing shop I liked, Orsay, and the stores were only located in Eastern Europe, so I bought a few items on sale and got €3 off one jacket because a button was missing – which I was able to sew on again in a few minutes. I had one CS host reply and say I could stay for the next three nights, to which I said I would. Ori worked a job where he flew urgently required items of all descriptions to other countries, most often at short notice. He got back late one night and didn’t think he’d be flying anywhere for a few days, so I left the Tent Hostel and found my way to the train station he suggested we meet. His place was a tiny studio apartment and I wasn’t sure we’d both fit in there for three days.

Since Munich doesn’t have any ocean for people to surf in they surf sections of the rivers that are known to have a constant ‘wave’ from the structure of the river bed (or human made canal). I witnessed this surfing on a walk through the English Gardens, and it made me laugh because most people I know at home wouldn’t have the patience to wait for one person at a time on the wave. In the gardens I also saw a brass band playing, and did a double take when I saw the shape of Australia on their banner, and on closer inspection found it was the Victorian State Youth Brass Band on the European tour for 2011. Funny the things you see when travelling. There was also a competition promotion in a pharmacy window, to win a trip to Australia, and the window was filled with Aussie flags, kangaroos, koalas and cactus trees all hanging upside down from the ceiling.

Visiting the Hofbrauhaus I was reminded of our version of the large beer hall in Melbourne, and of many good nights with my friend Ash every time he returned home from his work overseas. I managed to drink a small glass of beer with lemonade in it, which I know is not true beer but it was the best I could do at Ori’s insistence that I had to have a beer in Germany. I understand the country is known for it’s big beers, but even so I’m not keen on the stuff in any form. I did like the cheap price of fruit in Munich though, I bought a banana and half a kilo of cherries and it only cost €1.87. I also tried their bratwurst and was surprised to learn they are more like hot dogs than sausages – that is if I ordered the correct thing.

I had seen enough of Munich after two days, and should have left early for Salzburg, but I was still not used to changing plans so frequently and felt I should stay the three days I’d originally nominated to the CS host.

Dachau

The Dachau concentration camp memorial site is the actual site of the Concentration Camp, a place to hold the first political prisoners of Hitler’s reign from 1933 until the end of WW2, during which it also held Jewish people and others persecuted under his rule. It was not called an extermination camp, however many people were gassed to death there.

The weather on the day matched the mood of the place, overcast and cloudy. Greeting you at the entrance gate were the words ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (work makes you free), and upon entering the gate was a large open area, the former parade ground. From the parade ground was a museum, former barracks that had been reconstructed, and a monument that stated: ‘May the example of those who were exterminated here between 1933 – 1945 because they resisted Nazism help to unite the living for the defence of peace and freedom and in respect for their fellow men.’

The colours of all the triangles each prisoner had been made to wear, dependent on the category of ‘crime’ they had supposedly committed, were visible in another monument, along with the yellow star that all Jews were forced to display on their clothing.

Red triangles = political prisoners;

Green = professional criminals/convicts;

Blue = foreign forced labourers/emigrants;

Pink = homosexuals;

Purple = bible students/Jehovah’s Witnesses;

Black = ‘asocial’/work shy (inc mentally ill, alcoholics, vagrants, prostitutes, drug addicts, lesbians);

Brown = Roma/gypsies; and

An uninverted red triangle = an enemy POW/spy.

Only two barracks had been reconstructed, and showed the bunk beds in tiers of three, with no space between each person’s sleeping compartment – only a small wooden plank separated each ‘bed’. Although made for only 50 prisoners, each barrack often housed at least three or four times that many, with three people sleeping in each wooden shelf filled with the straw mattresses they called beds.

Listening to the audio guide as I walked slowly around the site was a chilling sensation. Hearing voices of people who had been imprisoned there, and recollections from others who had been part of the liberation of the camp brought a living reminder to the place where so many had died. A lump formed in my throat and silent tears escaped from beneath my sunglasses as I heard these voices, and I cried for those who suffered so severely at the hands of their fellow humans.

A road ran through the centre of the camp, with tall poplar trees lining either side. The barracks were divided by this road and in their place are now large pebbled areas with numbered cement blocks indicating the old barrack numbers. At the end of the road are the religious memorials, including the Jewish Memorial.

At the very end of the camp, and off to one side, is the crematorium – which is also the site where many of the prisoners in Dachau were gassed to death. They were told to undress in preparation for a ‘shower’, and the gas chambers were even made to look like showers with fake shower sprouts to mislead the victims and prevent them from refusing to enter the room. During a period of 15 to 20 minutes up to 150 people at a time could be suffocated to death with prussic acid poison gas (Zyklon B). Towards the end of the crematorium building sat the ovens – the machines used to dispose of the many people who were gassed to death. Some prisoners were hanged to death, and this would occur directly in front of the burning ovens.

Leaving the crematorium you walked through a dark and misty area, full of damp shrubbery and fern covered trees. The crunching gravel underfoot was the only noise to break the stifling silence, and stone tablets noting the atrocities committed loomed large in the eerie cover of darkness. The pistol range for execution and the blood ditch were clearly marked, as were the graves of many thousands unknown.

As I retreated silently to the exit the skies finally burst open and the rain bucketed down. Not having an umbrella I got soaked through, yet it was cleansing, as if washing away the shadows of inhumanity I’d been immersed in for the past few hours.

Never Again the memorial sign reminded me as I departed, Never Again.

Berlin

I flew from Salzburg to Berlin, and was pleased to be offered free newspapers and magazines on AirBerlin – and although I don’t read German it was the first time on any of my flights I’d been offered free daily reading material. AirBerlin also give you free chocolate hearts as you leave the plane – another tick for the airline.

The weather in Berlin was raining, cold and windy for pretty much the whole four days I was there. I wasn’t too worried though, and still went to visit the remaining sections of the Berlin Wall, the Jewish Memorial and the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp.

I noticed the green traffic light man as I walked around Berlin, and was struck by the little thing. He didn’t move as they did in Spain, with the count down timer (they walked and then run as the timer counted down the time left to cross the road), however this little man was wearing a cap, was a vivid green colour and was positioned as if he had a purpose and was going somewhere. Later on I saw him replicated in all the tourist shops, and wondered about his significance. I asked one shop owner, and she simply said ‘it’s just art’, which didn’t satisfy me one bit. I managed to find a mug with the words ‘keep on walking’ on it, and I took it to be a motivational symbol. I then discovered a postcard with an inscription in German, and returned with it to my hosts’ house and asked for a translation. My host in Berlin was a friend of a friend of my German friend Markus in Sydney. Tobias had kindly agreed to host me without knowing anything about me and I was very grateful. He lived with a friend Mirkoand my four days in Berlin were interesting and informative, thanks to those two highly intellectual guys.

Apparently the little green man I so liked was only in East Berlin. They were different in West Berlin and after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 the lights in the East were meant to be changed to match those in the West. However, everyone protested, saying that they should remain as they were as a lasting reminder, and future preventative measure, of the division the city had endured for nearly 30 years, and so they stayed. I didn’t get to West Berlin, but you can now tell which half of the city you’re in based on those little green men.

My hosts took me out for pizza, and we shared the biggest pizza I’ve ever seen in my life. It was almost one meter square, and easily fed the three of us. The place we went to specialised in huge pizzas, and that was all they served. The owner/chef would not negotiate with toppings, you chose one and couldn’t do half-half, and it came as a whole pizza and we cut it how we liked.

Another thing I noticed that was particular to Berlin were the decorations in their trains. Initially you don’t notice it, yet on closer inspection I realised the walls and windows were covered in miniature replica silhouettes of the most famous and popular buildings in Berlin. The Brandenburger Tor was there, as was the TV tower and the Reichstag, among other churches and museums. It was a pretty cool way of subliminally advertising the city and decorating the trains at the same time.

I went to the Nordbahnhof train station, which during the time of the Berlin Wall had been a ‘ghost station’. The Wall divided the city above ground, however some underground train stations still connected the two city halves. Three lines travelled beneath the old city centre of East Berlin on their way from one section of West Berlin to another. The trains did not stop at the stations located in East Berlin and the passengers from West Berlin came to regard them as ‘ghost stations’. They were guarded by policemen and soldiers, were not used as station stops and provided no access to the eastern section of the city. Numerous barriers were erected in them to prevent the tunnels being used as an escape routes. Above ground these unused stations disappeared from the East Berlin cityscape, with brick walls blocking off the entrances and the removal of all signs, effectively erasing the existence of the stations from the public mind. (Information courtesy of information boards at the Nordbahnhof station).

There is a fantastic information centre about the Berlin Wall, which was not just a wall but included a barbed wire fence, a guard post, an anti-vehicle barricade and a screen to block view and prevent escapes from East Berlin. The information centre is near the remaining sections of the wall, along the Bernauer Strass (Street), and a very interesting memorial has been constructed around those remaining sections. A photo board depicts the faces of each person who died as a result of the Wall, and the ‘Wall Walk’ culminates at the Documentation Centre. There is a tower that you can climb to see into another memorial which is boarded on one side by a remaining section of the actual wall and a replica wall on the other side that people can peer through to see what ‘no man’s land’ would have looked like.

I walked to the Brandenburger Tor to see the arch that is so often replicated in pictures depicting the Wall, and passed the Holocaust Monument on the way. The Holocaust Monument is a large area with 2711 concrete blocks which create a field of stelae in memory of the murdered Jews of Europe. I went back to the Holocaust Monument two days later to look through the information centre, and was so glad I did for it was the best Memorial I’ve been to in a long time, possibly ever. It was divided into six main areas, and each had a theme and was purposeful in the information displayed. I thought it was extremely well designed and the concrete stelae blocks above were continued in the building below, creating a connection between the two areas.

The Room of Names in the information centre was particularly striking, because I instantly felt as if I was in a morgue. The air temperature was colder than the other rooms, the lighting was dim, and the concrete blocks simulating coffins lay on the ground with blue lights emanating a glow from underneath. Names of victims of the Holocaust were projected one at a time on the walls, with a short biography of the person read aloud. The Room of Families was another one I thought was especially well done. It was dedicated to 15 families who were victims, yet the interesting thing was these families had some photographs and documentation that survived the Holocaust and the war. Each of the descending stelae depicted a family photograph if they had one, any documents they had regarding family member’s imprisonment and or death and gave a list of the individuals who survived and those who died. It provided a more personalised account of the war and gave faces and names to some of the victims.

Checkpoint Charlie was next on my list of places to see, and I tried a traditional currywurst along the way. It was basically a large hotdog that was smothered in tomato sauce with a sprinkling of curry powder on top. Not all that flash really. The replica building of Checkpoint Charlie was good to see, however I was not going to pay 12.90 to get into the museum. I bought some green traffic light man souvenirs at the shop opposite, and discovered I can fit into kids t-shirts and save myself a few ‘s in the process.

I went to the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, and traipsed around the site in the pouring rain all day. The Sachsenhausen camp site had not been maintained as much as the one in Dachau, although almost every building you went into was a mini museum of differing aspects of the Camp and WW2 in general. There was a stack of personal documents and items from previous prisoners, including clothes, ID and pictures. I walked around the roll-call area; the shoe-testing track – where prisoners were made to march and run endlessly around to test the material for the soles of army boots; the barracks and prison; station Z and the execution trench; the infirmary and the mass graves for the victims.

I learnt that three months after the end of the war and the liberation of Europe, the Soviet Secret Services used Sachsenhausen from 1945 to 1950 to hold around 60,000 prisoners, of whom about 12,000 died from hunger and disease. There was so much information it became overload, and I left at the end of the day soaking wet and nursing a headache.

My time in Germany came to an end, and I had learnt a lot more about events from 1933 to 1989, during my short time in the country. Although the weather in Berlin wasn’t ideal, I liked the city, enjoyed the cheap food and postage rates, and loved their museums even though I didn’t get to them all. Berlin is highly recommended if you want an educational holiday.

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Photos from Germany can be seen here. Enter ‘europe’ if asked for a password.

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