As we’ve traveled through our spring term class, the course here in Berlin has progressed through periods of German history. We started in the medieval period and worked our way into the nineteenth century, all the while exploring the architecture of the imperial buildings and the original market “platz.” Nothing too serious, nothing too somber. But this past week as hit like a ton of bricks on the traditionally dark focus of German history – the horrors of the World Wars and the Holocaust. After a trip to the Jewish Museum and the preserved New Synagogue this week, today we reached the most sobering day of our spring term. We visited Sachsenhausen, the concentration camp just a 45-minute train ride from Berlin.
Our train couldn’t even make it into Orienienburg. This morning the Berlin authorities found an uncovered and undefused bomb in the area close to the Orienienburg train station. This is a prime example of how the events that officially concluded almost seventy years ago to the day still affect the modern culture here in Berlin. Instead of taking the S1 line directly to the camp, we took a train, then a bus, then a 20-minute walk to reach the front gates.
Almost immediately, a silence fell on the group. We’re a pretty rowdy bunch, constantly talking and joking. However, it didn’t take a word from either our guide or Professor Youngman for us to realize that this was a place of silence and respect. During our three-hour tour, we learned the history of this place – it was predominantly a camp for prisoners of war and enemies of the Third Reich – and viewed the solitary confinement cells, memorials to the dead and the extermination sites. Although I’ve taken Nazism and Anti-Semitism classes and written countless papers on the topic, there’s really nothing that compares to walking through these places and fully absorbing what took place there. It was moving and definitely disturbing. However, as our tour guide consistently pointed out, it is more of a disgrace to remove or alter the history. Rather we should preserve it as it was, in an attempt to honor those who lost their lives.
Our tour guide was a native Englishman who has just finished his Ph.D. in Modern German History. I think it was interesting and important to have a third-party, but obviously well-informed, perspective. He did not attempt to hide the history, nor did he attempt to assign blame or tell an unfair narrative. He told the stories of the German camp use as well as its later appropriation by the Soviets as a prisoner and execution camp. As I looked around the camp, I focused not only on the actual features but also on the reactions of the people who were visiting. Some adults were crying, others walked around stone-faced. Large groups of high school students ran through in oblivion, laughing and flirting. Overall, I think that the trip to Sachsenhausen was a microcosm for our entire trip so far – you only get out as much as the effort you put into the trip. It would be easy to walk through and only see the surface in an attempt to brush over and forget the past, but the three hours we spent there today forced me to integrate this piece of German history as another layer in the culture of Berlin and what it has become today.
We have another week-and-a-half here, but this is my last blog for this project. Writing these has helped me to reflect on my experiences here in light of both my personal interests and as a representation of the group as a whole. For a first-time spring term class, I think Berlin has provided a wonderful opportunity for me to grow in both my language and analysis skills, and I have loved the opportunity to share a little piece of this with you.
This past Friday, the other W&L Berliners and I were gifted with a day off of classes at the international education center. Why? Because it turns out the first of May is a much bigger deal here in Germany than it is in the United States. While the U.S. Labor Day in September conjures up memories of small backyard BBQs and back-to-school shopping, Labor Day here was a massive, two-day event of county fair-type festivals, political demonstrations and even a few violent riots. I managed to avoid witnessing any rock throwing, but I did hang out at the more family-friendly affair and take in the modern German culture.
I don’t know if it gets any cooler than listening to a live concert under the Brandenburg Gate. This iconic piece of Berlin architecture has witnessed the first unification of the German nation in 1871, survived both World Wars, and was a point of massive tension with the building of the wall in 1961 until its fall in 1989. It has seen the Napoleonic conquest, Hitler’s marching armies, and FIFA World Cup celebrations. Yet on Friday afternoon, I stood in its shadow drinking Berlin’s local Pilsner and taking in the live performers with hundreds of other Germans. There were multiple singers, youth dance groups and many political messages. The giant background message on the stage says, “The work of the future starts with us.” Throughout the city, different labor unions were staging sit-ins and peaceful demonstrations while left-wing radicals were being a little less peaceful. It was an entire day devoted to labor and the cause of the worker — Labor Day in its true sense.
But the most entertaining part of the day definitely came from the music. As we entered the party, the band was performing a heavily accented rendition of “Tonight’s Gonna Be A Good Night” by the Black Eyed Peas. After we found a spot to take in all the action, the vibe shifted to some middle school dance classics. “Do The Twist” made an appearance, as well as “Shout.” All the Germans say along to “Lollipop” and really got into it when the band sang out the words, “do you love me… now that I can dance?” It wasn’t just little kids dancing either; the 20-something guys in front of us knew all the words and were gladly joining in. So while half of the city might have been getting a little rowdy, out at the Parisianer Platz it was all good beer, good vibes and good music.
My experience at the Brandenburg Gate that day kept my thinking about the idea of German nationality and identity, the two major themes of our course with Professor Youngman this term. From listening to predominantly American music to casual integrating English phrases, Germany has become a truly bilingual country. It’s not about being able to speak multiple languages or translating between the two; they have adopted English as part of the way they entertain and work. The lead singer yelled out mid-set, “Sehr geerhtliche Ladies and Gentlemen, wie geht es mit sich heute?” Ladies and Gentleman, not Herren und Frauen, totally English, totally integrated. Studying in German hasn’t been about speaking only German constantly, but learning how the German people function in two languages at once.
The Turkish Influence in Germany
Greetings from Berlin! My first few days traveling have proved quite interesting. While in route to Berlin, I spent twelve hours in the Istanbul airport for a flight delay. I made the most of my time there, scoping out the Turkish bakeries and people-watching. Little did I realize that I would be seeing a lot more of Turkish culture and influence while studying in Berlin.
Berlin, and Germany in general, experienced an influx of guest workers in the 1990s, most coming from Turkey. Now there is a large Turkish-German population and their presence can be seen throughout the city. My first experience with the Turkish culture in Germany came Sunday afternoon, when three other students and I were exploring the streets of Berlin, mostly trying to find lunch. We ended up in the Turkish quarter, attempting to communicate with people who knew even less German than we did. With the few words we did have in common, we managed to order what has quickly become a staple of our diet here in Berlin.
Döner are kind of like a Greek gyro. The meat is roasted on a turning spit, usually in the window where everyone can see it. They only cost about three euros and are huge and filling. And with lamb, lettuce, cabbage and carrots, it almost seems healthy! They’re sold everywhere around the city, not just in the Turkish quarter where we first stumbled on them. The little shops dot the street, often three within the same block. Although they’re not originally a German food, they’ve definitely found a place as a common lunch for businesspeople, students and everyone in between. With the IES program here in Berlin we’re often on our own for lunch, and I see a lot of döner-filled days in our future.
It’s only day three here in Berlin, but my first cultural lesson has definitely come through the food. Not just with döner or other Turkish food, but more generally. German people eat very little German food. While we stereotype Germans as a bratwurst- and potato-loving people, the majority of restaurants throughout the city describe themselves as Italian, Asian or American. My first night with my host family, they asked where or what I wanted to eat for dinner. When I answered, “German food,” they paused and had to think before giving a true German option, which was a few blocks away. This struck me as both odd and interesting. As both a history and German major, we talk about Germany as a formerly very nationalistic country, particularly with the World Wars. Isn’t it interesting then, that a country formerly so fixated on national identity now rarely identifies with their own cuisine? I can’t wait to see where these initial thoughts (and foods) will take me as I keep exploring Berlin.