Friday, July 15, 2011

Exploring the Epicenter of Destruction

Once we recovered from a lengthy travel to Germany, we were ready to explore authentic sites for the first time. We traveled from Hannover to Bergen-Belsen, which evolved from a prisoner of war camp and an exchange camp for Jews, to a concentration camp housing Jews from 'neutral' countries and occupied territories, and finally to a displaced persons camp after the war. At Bergen-Belsen we were treated to a tour of their new museum before the facility opened to the public. At this time, our guide, Martin explained some of the unique features or the camp as well as the design of the museum and various memorials there.

The main portion of our time at Bergen-Belsen was spent in four smaller groups exploring the site with various experts. The panel of experts was introduced by the director of historical memorials of Lower Saxony. I ended up with Martin once again as his presentation and emphasis were on images and how to use them in a variety of ways with students. Martin took us to a smaller conference room to have us examine five or so images all connected to the history of Belsen. He asked us to surmise about the images with no additional information. We discussed the images and guessed at what was going on and who was photographed. Then Martin gave use folders containing two levels of information that he uses with students. The first piece of information for each photograph gave context to the images by explaining what was happening in the photo and the time period of Bergen. The last information Martin gives to students allows them to dig deeper into the people, event and period of the photo. Martin's exercise was wonderful and truly increased our knowledge of the history of Belsen. Based on his layered activity, I'm going to create a new activity for teaching the camp system that contains images from various aspects of five or six 'sample' camps--I'm hopeful that by digging deeper they will find greater insights into camp life and the system.

Our time at Bergen-Belsen was wonderful and none of us wanted to see it come to an end. We begrudgingly entered the bus for a four hour ride to the German capital. Unfortunately, the lengthy ride was extended into a six hour ride by a truck accident that backed up the highway to a veritable stalemate. The bus finally pulled up to the Hotel Berlin, Berlin at 10pm and we were treated to dinner in boxed format. Dinner was not all that appetizing but our soon discovered combination of beer and wifi was glorious!

Berlin's rich history quickly became apparent as we spent Wednesday exploring a few key aspects of the city. We began with a drive down Tiergartenstrasse past lavish embassies to the marker for the T4 program, which was responsible for the murder of German citizens (particularly children) who were deemed mentally or physically unfit by the standards of the Third Reich. We then headed to the Topography of Terror exhibit which resides at the former headquarters of the SS, SA, SD, and Gestapo. The exhibit featured excellent information on the perpetuators, various victim groups (particularly German political opponents) tortured and targeted by the Nazi machine, and the aftermath of the Holocaust for the perpetrators and Germany as a whole. The site also contains a stretch of the Berlin Wall which enhances the complexity of the history of Berlin.

After lunch we ventured to two memorials related to Nazi terror: the Memorial to the Homosexuals (who faced a specific terror due to Nazi pro-natalist policies) and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, which has a fabulous exhibit under the actual memorial. The memorials are both distinct and interesting to view as they conjure a variety of emotions. The memorial to Germany's homosexuals appears gender neutral but a window reveals two men kissing to draw attention to the more pervasive persecution of gay men. The memorial to murdered Jews of Europe contains overs two thousands, for a lack of a better term, blocks of varying heights. You can get lost among them and disoriented as the ground undulates in various portions of the memorial.

We then ventured to the Jewish museum of Berlin where the architecture may overwhelm the visitor the to point where the artifacts become less significant. Thankfully we had a guided tour through much of this museum or we would have been completely confused in places. The most notable aspects of this site were the various abstract pieces and locations designed to make you uncomfortable and reflective. The museum is an important fixture in Berlin, but we didn't have a tremendous amount of time to explore it.

Another day in Berlin means another day of exploring sites related to the Holocaust. We began the second day with a trip to the Olympic Stadium and Tower. It gave us a fabulous view of the city and the surrounding region. With the stadium playing such an important role in the Nazi propaganda machine, it was really powerful to view the Olympic venue. After the tower, we traveled outside the city center to Wannsee Villa. The villa was the site of a strategic meeting between Nazi bureaucrats over how to organize and proceed forward with the final solution and the murder of European Jewry. Cristof was our guide through the villa and did a fabulous presentation on photographs. He was also able to explain the purpose and role of the conference in a context that differs from hollywood's view through Conspiracy. It was completely surreal to sit in the room where these members of the Nazi party met to plan for the fate of millions of people.

The bus took us back into the city to go explore the Jewish sights of Berlin. Many aspects of Jewish culture have been excised, but our guide did an excellent job telling us about Jewish life as we walked through the city. The most moving part of the day was seeing the museum dedicated to Otto Weidt and his brush factory, which through his efforts he was able to save some of his blind workers from the horrors of Nazi persecution. Otto was truly a wonderful man who cared deeply for his workers and went to great length to save them. 

Once our official tour was over, a few of us brave souls decided to walk from the hotel to Postdam square and then Checkpoint Charlie. It seemed relatively close on the map but ended up being a solid twenty minute stroll. We had beautiful weather and sunset to provide us with a lovely backdrop for our walk. Along the way we found souvenirs and yummy beer. Cynthia posted on my wall that I should try the Berliner raspberry wheat beer. I found it at the house of 100 beers, and it was glorious! 

On Friday we ventured to two concentration camps: Ravensbruck and Sauchenhausen. More to come on those. Tomorrow we leave for an early train to Warsaw. Will update again when I have wifi in Poland. 

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