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Sachsenhausen: Past and Present

Sarah Monnier - Berlin, Germany

I am three weeks into my course looking at what is remembered and what is forgotten in Berlin’s history. In our short time here we have gone on numerous excursions as a class to visit sites that reflect this theme.

In our second week we had our longest and most intimidating journey, a visit to a concentration camp. This past semester I took a class on the history of the Holocaust as part of my history degree, so I knew the logistics of what happened. I knew that Sachsenhausen was a concentration camp just outside of Berlin. I knew it held prisoners for a variety of qualities categorized as criminal offenses by the Third Reich, from political beliefs and sexual orientation to being Jewish, Sinti, or Roma. I just didn’t know what to expect when seeing the camp in person.

Guard tower

The main guard tower for Sachsenhausen is at the center of a spoke-like arrangement of barracks. Built in 1936, the camp was meant to serve as the ideal model for later camps to follow.

To get to the camp we took an hour-long ride on the S-Bahn followed by a 10-minute bus ride through a picturesque town. Upon arrival we were met with a large map of the camp emphasizing the enormity of Sachsenhausen.

The camp was meant to be the ideal model for all camps that would follow. Our guide explained the semi-circular set up of the camp. One main guard tower above the entrance was able to control the entire camp with one machine gun because the barracks fanned out like bicycle spokes from its base. A curved track paved with uneven stones separated the barracks from the tower. Prisoners were forced to carry weights while testing shoes for the German army, trekking back and forth across the track until collapsing from exhaustion.

guard tower and fenceline

The outer perimeter of the camp is bordered by a combination of barbed wire, electric fences and a cement wall. The “neutral zone” served as a death strip, for anyone who crossed its threshold or was forced to cross into it was shot immediately.

Throughout the visit we were faced with the cruelty and suffering that was commonplace at the camp, from torture devices, gallows, and crowded bunks, to the crematorium. Some of us felt numb and uneasy, whispering to each other as we navigated the camp on our own.

In contrast to the raw leftovers of history we witnessed, were the intrusions of the current day. There were hundreds of other visitors to the camp that day, many with handheld, brick-like walkie-talkies that explained the history of the camp in whatever language was needed. There were some who snapped selfies in front of the gates near the sign that read “ARBEIT MACHT FREI” – work sets you free. The experience left me feeling disconnected from what that site was.

labor camp entrance

The entrance to many labor camps of the Third Reich bore the same slogan “ARBEIT MACHT FREI” – works sets you free. The saying was increasingly insidious, as most prisoners would be “freed” only through death after exhaustion from forced labor.

Our visit to Sachsenhausen served as another example of how Germany handles its darkest period in history. During the war, the scenic town was still where it is today, right next to the camp. German civilians could not have ignored the enormous structure located down the street from their own homes. They would have witnessed the new prisoners arriving at the local train station and seen the smoke stacks as no one made a return trip. Similarly, the camp remains as prominent as it was as a reminder and warning to all of us today. If we allow ourselves to forget, then we are enabling the conditions of fear and hate that emboldened the Third Reich to take hold once more.

Sarah Monnier - exploring the history and memory of Berlin

Bloomington Meets Berlin

Sarah Monnier - Berlin, Germany

When I was preparing to study abroad there were a lot of warnings about culture shock and homesickness; and of course when my mom was driving away, leaving me at the airport, I was shaken up. That nervous feeling did not leave me until I met the other Indiana University students in Berlin. Since then I have been too busy exploring to be bothered by weird instances of cultural confusion, like the Kontrolleurs on the trains. The Kontrolleurs spend their days in plainclothes slipping onto trains and flashing their badges before requiring everyone to show their validated ticket. Being caught without the correct ticket will get you kicked off and earn you a pricey fine.

While I’m on the subject of public transportation, I think Bloomington could take some pointers from Berlin; they have it down to a beautiful, eco-friendly network of trams, trains and buses. To get to class I can take a tram from the hotel we are staying in on a five-minute ride to the Oranienburger Straße stop which is at most a two-minute walk from our classroom at IES. The trams are particularly nice because they have their own lane to operate in and only stop when requested, making for quicker commutes. To get virtually anywhere in the city, we can also take the U-Bahn, the underground train or the S-Bahn, the above-ground train. I prefer the S-Bahn because you can see the city as you travel. A tip to those riding public transportation, Germans are not fond of noisy, over-talkative groups so save your breath and keep it down. Also, don’t be alarmed if you feel like people are staring at you — I’ve gathered that they are just an observant bunch and don’t mean anything by it.

Sarah and friend eating döners.

My treasure hunt partner, Greer Brown and I enjoyed the task of finding the best döner in Berlin. Döner is becoming one of the most popular foods in the city, behind currywurst.

On our first day of class our professor paired us off and assigned us each a treasure hunt to find different sites or things around the city. Mine took me from the first place the Berlin Wall opened to the best döner kebab stand to a fancy mall overlooking the zoo. I felt like I was back at Freshman Orientation learning my way around campus and finding places to hang out or study. An early favorite of mine is the Teirgarten; a huge park perfect for jogging, sunbathing, reading, or just watching the other visitors, usually with their impressively obedient dogs in tow. When you are close to the outside perimeter of the park and can see the Brandenburg Gate, it feels just like any small, green space in any city; but when you are deep within it wildflowers, weeping willow trees and countless statues surround you. If you’re lucky and find yourself near the statues for Mozart, Beethoven, and Haydn, you’ll hear chimes — solidifying the feeling that you are in some kind of fairytale.

Sarah posing with Ampelmann

While on our way to the Reichstag, we discovered a giant statue of the Ampelmännchen, the crossing guard symbol of East Germany. Affectionately called Ampelmann, it is one of the few symbols left over from the communist German Democratic Republic.

After finishing our scavenger hunt we reunited with our class to tour the Reichstag, the home of Germany’s parliament. Touring the Reichstag gave an interesting insight into the theme of our class. The exterior of the building has historic grandeur while the inside is pristinely modern. There are few reminders of the mysterious fire that destroyed part of the building in 1933 after Hitler came to power.

Our tour guide led us through the enormous glass doors and began to explain the dusty, charcoal graffiti found on the walls. At the end of World War II after taking Berlin, Soviet soldiers descended on the Reichstag and left their mark on the walls. She explained that it was decided that it would be preserved to serve as a constant reminder of Germany’s history.

German graffiti on wall

This may not look like much but there are numerous walls in the Reichstag covered in it. The graffiti was filtered by the Russian and German governments when the decision was made to preserve it, first removing any pieces that were explicitly violent to the people of Germany.

We continued on our tour to an interior balcony overlooking a wall-sized window facing the east. Our guide pointed out the bullet holes left in the ceiling from the Battle of Berlin and then focused on the slightly darker line on the pavement outside. She explained the Berlin Wall used to run directly behind the Reichstag separating it from what used to be East Germany. She laughed as businessmen walked along the line, unaware that a group of tourists were observing, perhaps oblivious to what they were walking on. After one week here, these are the kind of ironic contrasts we are starting to get used to.

Sarah Monnier - exploring the history and memory of Berlin

Sprichst du Englisch?

Sarah Monnier - Berlin, Germany

I do not speak German. This is the primary thought that is constantly resurfacing in my mind as I prepare to study abroad in Berlin for one month this summer. Other concerns come up as well, for example: how do I finish the required reading for this course when I’m still worrying about my spring classes that only end two days before I take an 11 hour plane ride by myself to the Tegel Airport in Germany?

I recently studied abroad in France as part of the Footsteps of Ernie Pyle class through the IU Media School. We explored London, Normandy and Paris while researching Ernie Pyle and his coverage of World War II. Being able to communicate with the people I encountered in their own language or understanding descriptions in museums made me feel more a part of the country and connected to what I was learning. A particular high point was when other French-speaking visitors to Paris asked me for directions, thinking I was a Parisian, something I gave away immediately when I replied in French corrupted by my Hoosier accent. I am dreading coming across as ignorant or unintelligent for not knowing the local language as I explore Berlin.

berliner-dom-view

Berlin is a city characterized by its past, something that can be easily traced by looking at the variety of architecture and styles in both the East and West.

But really, I am more excited than worried. Sure it would be nice to be able to talk fluently to the people of Berlin but I’ve never let a language barrier stop me before. I work at Walt Disney World and I can tell you I’ve had hundreds of memorable, albeit mime-like exchanges with the South American tourists who visit in the summer, and I don’t speak Spanish or Portuguese either. Regardless, I have downloaded the Duolingo app in a last-ditch attempt to learn as much as I can before my arrival. So far I know the words for beer (Bier), bread (Brot) and hello (Hallo) so I would classify that as basic survival skills.

I have a few days before I arrive at the hotel in the center of Berlin that will be my home for the month of May. They have told us we are staying in the Mitte district in Germany’s capitol city. Located in what used to be East Germany, Mitte is now considered the hippest area of the city, I will report back on that soon. A large part of the course is looking at how Berlin’s history is represented and preserved, to be observed in the present day. There are innumerable reminders throughout the city of its past; from what remains of the Berlin Wall to the Soviet graffiti in the Reichstag, the home of Germany’s parliament.

Sunset at Reichstag

A visit to the Reichstag awaits on the second day of class. The Reichstag is situated in the western half of Berlin but directly behind it the eastern half begins.

Like every student preparing for study abroad I have a passport (complete with a deadpan, deer-in-headlights snapshot of myself), an adapter for all the necessary electronics and a Pinterest board full of articles listing the 115 places I have to visit while I’m there. I am also excited to see how the authentic German food differs from the sauerkraut, sausage and potatoes my dad always made when I was growing up. I’m guessing that Germans don’t cook theirs crock-pot style in the garage for several hours, my dad’s favorite strategy to prevent the entire house from smelling like the pickled cabbage. So I guess all I can do now—besides finishing finals and actually packing—is accept that things are probably not going to go perfectly the way I plan. I’m probably going to be lost more often than not. I’m probably going to have to use a lot more hand gestures than Germans are used to. But as corny as it sounds, I’m probably going to have one of the best adventures of my college career and I can’t wait.

Sarah Monnier - exploring the history and memory of Berlin

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