A Weekend in Berlin

Berlin has been on my “top places to visit” list ever since we moved to Europe.  We had the opportunity to spend a weekend in Berlin with our friends the Senkowskis (OSC ’12) and it exceeded all our expectations.  At first glance, we were impressed by its size, its large public transportation network, and the accessibility to international food. (Chinese, Middle Eastern, Indian food anyone?)  Although it is a very trendy city with its modern art and architecture and hipster-clad 30-somethings, it is also deeply rooted in history.  There may well be a WWII museum on every corner.  I found the juxtaposition between new and old refreshing; it seemed as though the city embraced its past, but aimed to make a splash in the future.

Of course, we spent most of our two days (we could have stayed for a week and not seen everything!) visiting the WWII museums and memorials, seeing the famed Berlin Wall, and trying to understand the cultural differences between East and West Berlin during the Cold War.  With some great advice from Neil and Gina for our first day itinerary, we set out on a long site-seeing excursion.  First stop: the Berlin Wall Memorial on Bernauer Strasse.  When the Soviets erected the Berlin Wall in 1961, it ran along Bernauer Strasse, dividing one side of the street from another.  Bernauer Strasse became famous for border-crossing attempts, the vast-majority from east-to-west, from windows of apartments on the eastern side of the wall to the street, which was in the west.  According to official records, 136 people died while attempting to cross the wall, including border guards and innocent bystanders.  Historians believe the number to be greatly under-reported.  There is now a memorial dedicated to those who died.  Also on the grounds at Bernauer Strasse, a section of the Berlin Wall still stands showing the double-wall structure, the “death strip” between, and the guard tower. Any citizen who stepped foot in the “death strip” risked being shot on sight for crossing over the wall into the inner area.

Over the years, the wall structure changed to make it “more efficient” (i.e. less penetrable).  The East Germans took their male Olympic athletes and had them attempt to cross the barrier.  If they succeeded, the government expanded and modified the wall until the athletes were “stuck” once again.  The photo below is the last iteration before the wall fell in 1989.

Double wall, “death strip” space, and guard tower along Bernauer Strasse

The wall was larger than I imagined

Mosaic of people who died as a result of the wall

In the center of town, we visited the Typography of Terror Museum on the grounds of the old SS Headquarters.  Then, we passed by a car rental station where former Eastern Bloc cars (Trabi) can be taken for a test drive.  They are really tiny and something tells me they probably weren’t painted with these schemes in the past.

They look like toy cars

Too cute!

Next, we were off to Checkpoint Charlie, the name given by the Allies to the single crossing point (by foot or by car) for foreigners and members of the Allied Forces between East Berlin and West Berlin during the Cold War.  After the dissolution of the Eastern Bloc and the reunification of Germany, the building at Checkpoint Charlie became a tourist attraction, complete with men who dress up like WWII American soldiers snapping photos with tourists. We assume they make good money as it was 92 degrees outside and they seemed in high spirits.  Frank Thiel’s light-box installation (“Untitled”) shows two larger-than-life color portraits looking over Checkpoint Charlie. A young American and a young “Soviet” soldier each look into the other’s territory, marking the dividing line and crossing point between the former “sides” of the two world powers.  The photos were taken in 1994 before the Allied forces withdrew from Berlin. Since the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, the “Soviet” soldier is wearing the uniform of the new Russian federation.

Checkpoint Charlie

American solider looking over former Soviet territory

Russian soldier

Checkpoint Charlie

Checkpoint Charlie

Former Berlin Wall marked on the ground near Checkpoint Charlie

Around Berlin, near major tourist sites, there are small portions of the old wall that were painted and left as markers.  Near Checkpoint Charlie specifically, there were some bright and cheerful examples as well as a series of paintings of dictators from around the world.

Wall art


We also visited the Jewish Museum, built to honor the Jewish victims of World War Two.  Designed by famed architect Daniel Libeskind, the Jewish Museum excels at making the visitor feel uncomfortable.  Overall, the museum is laid out in a zig-zag shape, or a warped Star of David.  The floor is slanted, the walls compress, and the ceiling lowers.  The tourist is often forced into small, angular spaces that intensify the museum’s experience.  In one room, the Holocaust tower, the only light in the space streams in from a slit in the ceiling.  In the opposite corner, a ladder is placed on the wall, just out of human reach.  For me, I felt hopeless and I think that’s exactly what Libeskind wanted. The exterior of the building recalled the concertina  wire found in WWII concentration camps around Europe.

Exterior of the Jewish Museum in Berlin

Window detail

Sloped floor garden that threw us off our equilibrium

Interior stairway

Stairs to nowhere

On our last stop of the day, we visited another famous architectural piece: The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe by Peter Eisenman.  In all, 2,711 large concrete slabs or “stelae”, are arranged in a grid pattern on a sloping field.  According to Eisenman’s project text, the stelae are designed to produce an uneasy, confusing atmosphere, and the whole sculpture aims to represent a supposedly ordered system that has lost touch with human reason. Both Libeskind’s museum and Eisenman’s memorial have this in common.  Beneath the memorial, there is a list of the names of all known Jewish Holocaust victims.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Floating head in the memorial

Ordered chaos

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Walking back to the train, we caught one of Berlin’s most important landmarks, the Brandenburg Gate.

Brandenburg Gate

On our second day in Berlin, the Senkowskis took us to the most famous part of the Berlin Wall called the East Side Gallery.  The Gallery consists of 105 paintings on the east side of the Berlin Wall completed by artists from all over the world in 1990 .  According to the artists, the paintings at the East Side Gallery document a time of change and express the euphoria and great hopes for a better, more free future for all people of the world.  Of course, I couldn’t take photos of all of the paintings, but here are some of our favorites:

East Side Gallery

East Side Gallery

East Side Gallery

East Side Gallery

East Side Gallery

Trabi Eastern Bloc car breaking through the wall

East Side Gallery

East Side Gallery

East Side Gallery

East Side Gallery

East Side Gallery

On the west side of the wall, there was a newer exhibition that I found striking.  Large photographs depict other barriers around the world that divide (or divided) two populations.

American soldier sits on a wall in the DMZ between North and South Korea

Nogales, Mexico; the wall between the US and Mexico


West Bank

Tijuana, Mexico; border on the beach

Border between Ceuta, Spain and Morocco

Neil also pointed out some small stones in the ground outside of residences along the streets of Berlin.  These have names, date of capture, and date of death on them.  They serve as permanent reminder of the citizens of Berlin who were taken from their homes and sent to their deaths under the fascist regime.

Commemorative stones

Next, we ventured to Mauerpark, a public park in Berlin consisting of a converted portion of the “death strip” between the old walls.  Now, it is a very popular hangout for young and old alike.  They hold a large flee market every Sunday, host karaoke, and have some pretty amazing street performers.

Juggling fire

He told jokes in English and the Germans all laughed

Of course, we couldn’t see everything we could have in Berlin, but in two days, I think we did some pretty good damage.  We had such a wonderful trip and hope to make it back one day!


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