A Travellerspoint blog

Berlin & Rhetoric

The Power of Words

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Our final piece of the puzzle was actually one of the places that started it all: Berlin, home of buildings where democracy was used to create a dictator and where an economic depression had made people willing to listen to those touting solutions.

We began our tour at the Brandenburg Tor (gate), which was built in 1791 by Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm II to congratulate himself on being a winner. It’s got six giant columns and Victory perched atop with her four horses. It has a great plaza on one side and the other points straight toward his castle outside of town. Poor Friedrich didn’t remain victorious long because less than two decades later Napoleon came along and decided “Victory” was his; he promptly took all 5 tons of her to the Louvre. She was returned when he was defeated and her body was altered—now her gaze rests upon the French Embassy keeping them in line. Fast forward to the 1930s, and Hitler and the Nazis decided they wanted to be associated with “Victory,” hence the many images of soldiers marching in formation through the gate and the plaza.

Right around the corner from the Brandenburg Tor is the Reichstag building. In this place Hitler used law and democracy to grant himself emergency power when he was Chancellor; he never ceded it. This building was home to countless injustices and persecutions of those whose beliefs were in opposition to the Nazis. From this place of power, the party told the German people they would make their country strong again—a nearly familiar turn of phrase. The building itself is capped by a glass dome that is supposed to represent the transparency of government and where citizens (or tourists) can look down on congress at work. The day we visited, the wind perfectly unfurled the German flag.

After a walk through the Tiergarten, a park with many statues and people enjoying the outdoors, we arrived at one of the more bleak and austere memorials we’ve seen. It was created by Peter Eisenmann in 2005 and consists of 2,711 concrete rectangles, each of a different height and angle, placed in sort-of-straight rows on uneven ground. The slabs toward the perimeter are lower leading to slabs that are towering to the wanderer in the middle. Eisenmann never gave a statement as to their meaning or how they should be interpreted. As I walked through, it felt cold and labyrinthine. The uneven ground was unsettling. The low slabs leading to the tall ones reminds me of the way we sometimes wave off little acts against humanity forgetting that little gives way to big eventually. The aesthetic is not pleasing; it’s very harsh like much German architecture—-purposeful, efficient, planned…just as the Final Solution.

Our next discovery was a memorial and a mural at the Finance Ministry. 70 years ago, 1953, workers were told they could no longer get overtime pay but would instead receive higher quotas for their regular hours. They went on strike marching to the Ministry. They were shot at by police and many were killed. A pool ringed in flowers and showing a picture of the workers linking arms stands forward of the building to honor them. On the wall behind, ironically, is a mural predating 1953 that shows the propaganda these citizens were delivered—-happy socialists working and playing. The rhetoric doesn’t hold when your family is starving.

We also saw Bebelplatz, the place where the Nazis burned 20,000 books deemed inappropriate. The plaza itself is just a large stone square sittting among buildings of Humboldt University. The memorial is a tiny window, maybe 3 feet by 3 feet that looks down on empty library shelves. It had potential to be very powerful; however, the glass is terribly scratched and hard to see through. Still, as an English teacher I couldn’t help being moved by the intention of the memorial—-words are power, and censorship is one way to make sure nothing is left to challenge ‘your’ ideas. I consider it weakness to try and have the other point of view erased.

From there we went to the Topography of Terror museum and saw a portion of the remaining Berlin Wall. This site used to hold Gestapo headquarters where the Final Solution was planned and enacted. Those buildings are no longer, but the site invites you to imagine the evils done there as you walk the perimeter. Below the remains section of the Wall is an outdoor exhibit that chronicles Berlin from the 1930s through the 1990s. It’s got an amazing collection of propaganda that attempts to show what Germans were told about what was necessary to save their country. They were told what to celebrate and how, they were inspired to Nationalism by targeting all ages as important, and they were delivered a picture of who was and who was not part of the Germany to come. It was really scary stuff—all done with words. My students are never overly excited to study rhetoric, but having experienced the extreme effects achieved by the Nazis and Soviets, I firmly believe this is one of the most important skills I can teach them. If we can’t decipher the intentions behind someone’s words, then we are just blindly following. (End soapbox.).

We were able to see remnants of the wall—poured in small sections in case it was breached. We also saw Checkpoint Charlie where East met West in 10 lanes of traffic with one little hut between. Since I clearly remember the “fall” of the Berlin Wall when I was in junior high, I was very excited to see it. It seems so close and yet so far away in history.

Posted by Jackie2074 07:17 Archived in Germany Comments (0)

Warsaw Uprising

Resistance and Reconstruction

Today we visited a spectacular museum dedicated to the Warsaw Uprising of August 1944. This museum explained the resistance efforts of the Polish people against the Nazis towards the end of the war.


Like many countries in Central Europe, Poland had been divided and faced fear on two fronts—-Nazis and Soviets. They had been occupied since 1939, and while racist ideologies were heavily enacted on the Jewish population, other citizens suffered as well as Germany took what they wanted. Consequently all resisters were a threat and were treated as such. The Polish “P” with an anchor symbol spawned 66 known resistance groups and even adorned children’s toys. Resistance groups included all ages and genders in their efforts.

The uprising itself consisted of five days of heavy fighting in early August plus the ramifications. Just as other cities like Paris and London took heavy damage, so did Warsaw. The fighting was in the city streets and demolished much of what Old Town was. It is soberingly parallel to what news reports show us of Ukraine right now. Nothing spared or sacred, not place of worship or school or hospital.

Perhaps the most chilling actions taken during this rebellion were taken by the Nazis. Hitler and Himmler ordered SS Gruppenfuhrer Heinz Reinefarth to kill any resisters. Reinefarth honed in on the Wola district, 85,000 inhabitants, where the underground was strong and sent his men door to door to murder people those first days in August. Men, women, and children—none were spared. It is estimated that between 15,000 and 60,000 Poles were killed by Reinefarth and his men. Many now consider these acts genocide.

One woman who did survive told a harrowing tale; she and her mother went to visit her sister in the hospital, but as they entered, Nazis were shooting everyone. Her mother was killed. She tried to get over a pile of bodies but struggled. She tried to play dead and cover her head, and it worked—she was shot in the arm but survived.

What is horrifying in all of this is that Reinefarth was allowed to become a politician after WWII in West Germany. The Americans were using him for information and testimony at Nuremberg. Courts in Hamburg never charged him with crimes due to lack of evidence. The West refused to extradite him to the East for trial. Unbelievable!

The museum ends with a “what if it was you” reflection. Would you choose to fight for your beliefs? Would you let your children help? What would your breaking point be?

Warsaw has undertaken major reconstruction of the ruins into spaces reminiscent of what was there before the destruction. The Old Town district is alive with restaurants and coffee houses and people, and on the weekends, it’s only for foot traffic. It’s become a place full of positive energy and smiles. Warsaw has also over many hundreds of years dedicated space for nature and beauty. A large park near Old Town contains a beautiful statue, reflecting pool, and roses in honor of Chopin. Further inside the park are the Royal Baths Park with a former palace and all sorts of sculptures and architecture representing a menagerie of styles. It’s an oasis away from urban living.


Posted by Jackie2074 14:26 Archived in Poland Comments (0)

Visiting Auschwitz

Words escape me.

Yesterday we were able to visit Auschwitz I and Auschwitz Birkenau, a place I’ve read about through the eyes and experiences of survivors and through the lens of historical fiction. Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi, Viktor Frankl, and Vladek Spiegelman were physically in this place. It was unsettling; at times I questioned whether I should’ve treading in this place where evil occurred, but then I’d think about Wiesel’s words calling us all to bear witness.

The day was overcast and rainy off and on, no glaring sun to contend with. Our group consisted of Agnes, our guide, and 18 people from all over. We were first taken through Auschwitz I, the oldest part of the compound and the smallest. As you leave the staging area and head for the notorious gate, you walk silently through a concrete corridor open to the sky where a voice reads names of survivors. Then you proceed through a park like area, turning at a weeping willow that reminded me of the Tree of Life in Budapest…all those individual leaves.73b74230-132d-11ee-8c17-3963a3a8ce3d.jpegIMG_7979.jpeg

We entered through the gate, and the irony of “work makes you free” set the stage for what was to come. The buildings here feel permanent as they are brick, two stories tall and long, some with basements. The trees are mature now and lend the beauty of nature. Some buildings were for the officers and soldiers, some had specific purposes like Block 11, executions, and Blocks 19 & 20, infirmary. They’ve been very careful to lead people through the brick buildings methodically sharing historical background, statistics, and the like leading up to the selections and executions in the crematorium gas chambers. IMG_5193.jpeg73ed1f40-132d-11ee-9044-8bbfd33f8937.jpegIMG_5216.jpegIMG_5235.jpegIMG_7995.jpeg73b56d70-132d-11ee-814e-8bcb602ff6b2.jpegIMG_7996.jpeg

It is in this part of the museum where “Canada” existed, where the clothes, suitcases, shoes, luggage, other belongings, and human hair are on display. Though I knew I’d see them and had seen them in photos and documentaries, it turned my stomach to see the braids of hair and it hurt my heart to see the mountain of children’s shoes. The adult shoes took me to the memorial on the Danube and to the red coat in the film Schindler’s List, both creating strong emotions.IMG_8010.jpeg

We were walked through the gas chambers in this first camp, and we saw the ruins of one in Birkenau, as Agnes explained the process. It’s hard to imagine seeing droves of people walk in but never seeing them come out; that plus the chimney smoke would have led to some inferences, but they wouldn’t have known for sure. Terror.IMG_8026.jpegIMG_5229.jpegIMG_5227.jpeg

Birkenau was built because Auschwitz I was too small. Germans took the land from Polish farmers who could move to Oszwiecim if they weren’t trouble or could be deported themselves if they were—this was the case with our guide’s family who were sent to Dachau. This camp is huge, and when bricks ran out, the prisoner barracks became wooden—what most of us think of. Walking up to Birkenau you see the brick train depot facade with tracks leading straight to it going inside. You see the barbed wire electric fences and the rows of barracks. It’s about 1/4 mile long inside from gate to the two crematories at the back. IMG_8031.jpeg

Agnes showed us how crowded it would be with 30 train cars full of 100 people each would be and reminded us of the photo of selection and sorting—men to the left, women and children right, Mengele watching. Though I’ve read about selection in vivid, horrifying accounts, standing in the space with a replica train car behind me and that actual photo in my head, I was taken aback by the fear and confusion and disbelief that must have coursed through them all. How would that not haunt you forever? I imagine it did.IMG_7998.jpeg73e8b270-132d-11ee-8c17-3963a3a8ce3d.jpegIMG_5223.jpeg

We were able to see the sleeping barracks with never-ending rows of bunks, three or four high, 7-10 per level, heads angling up. We saw the toilets and had another layer of awareness of the inhumanities suffered in this place. IMG_8040.jpegIMG_8043.jpegIMG_8044.jpegIMG_5233.jpegIMG_5231.jpeg

And as we left to walk back to the beginning, a reminder from nature that it goes on despite the evils that men do—three kinds of wildflowers among the sea of green grass.

Posted by Jackie2074 08:34 Archived in Poland Comments (0)

Kraków’s Jewish Community

And one of its heroes

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After an adventure on a Nightjet, we arrived in Krakow at 6 am, still tired and a bit sleep deprived. We were able to drop our bags off before we started our explorations, luckily remembering our rain jackets. (We waited out quite the downpour in a coffee shop!) IMG_7891.jpeg

We made our way to Kazimierz, the Jewish quarter and followed the historical trail. One of the first things we say was the Old Synagogue, now a museum. Across the street is a large monument for the 65,000 Polish Jews killed by the Nazis. Tiny stones adorn the monument where visitors have placed them in remembrance. The adjacent garden and trees make it a peaceful place to be.

Around another corner was the Remuh Synagogue and the Old Cemetery. These date from 1558! That’s before Shakespeare was born, folks! Crazy—-very little in my neck of the woods is that old and still in use. It did require renovations after WWII.

The New Jewish Cemetery (1800) also needed renovations as it sustained heavy bombing that destroyed graves and headstones. The reconstruction has lovingly placed and viable fragments into either a wall surrounding the cemetery or into the large monument to Holocaust victims. This place was quiet and empty and wet from the rain. Some headstones were so old they were illegible. Others were overgrown with vegetation. One beautiful plaque was for a mama, Sala or Sara, who died of cancer in 1931 but who lost her husband, parents, and daughters to the Holocaust…it was unclear who was left to commission the plaque.

After Kazimierz we crossed to Pogordze to see Schindler’s enamel factory. Our guide Kate walked us through this thoughtfully crafted museum that first explained how Krakow was transformed upon German occupation. Germans wanted the land ultimately, and they liked the city, so rather than destroy it, they altered things, spruced things up, and gave it all German names. Poles were under scrutiny too though they weren’t oppressed outright like the Jewish community. One of my favorite things from this learning was about the Polish Resistance—their symbol looks like a capital P and an anchor, but it represented hope to many. I also loved seeing Schindler’s office and the images of the 1,200 he saved at the end. And there was a room near the end that spoke in symbols to us: at first it just seemed like walls and walls of quotes, even on spinning columns, but as it was explained, this space was gray—not black or white—and it represented every kind of choice and decision and reaction to the Nazi occupation; we can’t sum up or generalize human experiences as neatly as we would like sometimes.

Two of the stories Kate told stuck out to me. One was about the number of calories prescribed for citizens under German rule. Polish were allotted 700 calories per day. Jews, 300. Per day. And if you didn’t work, you didn’t eat and were shipped out. Inconceivable! Oskar Schindler was able to offer his workers something better than gold—he fed them during their shift, in addition to their 300 calories, helping them keep up a little strength.

The other story is not a happy one. When the Germans took over, one leader asked to meet with all the university professors before the start of term. Of course they went when summoned so they could continue working. They were deported immediately, young and old, because Germans knew they were smart enough to lead a resistance, hence they were a threat. When the world found out, even Mussolini spoke out against this action, and four months later those left alive were released. Those who perished were returned in urns with certificates declaring their deaths natural causes. Two things here—-they recognized the power of learning and education (though for the wrong reasons), and how bad are you if your fellow dictators are shaking their heads at you?

Our final exploration this day took us to find a fragment of the wall that was built around the Jewish Getto (Polish spelling). I had no idea how tall it would be or how solid. You definitely felt the intention—not having to see what was behind the wall.

Posted by Jackie2074 13:59 Archived in Poland Comments (0)

Budapest and the Holocaust

Between Two Evils

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Though it may not be the first country that comes to mind if you think about the Holocaust,Hungary and the Hungarian Jewish community suffered as well. Hungary, like many Central European countries, faced the threat of the Nazis Fri the West and the threat of the Soviet Red Army from the East.

The Jewish community in District Seven was vibrant and large. Europes largest synagogue is in this district, Dohány Street Synagogue, as well as many others like the Rumbach. They lived on the eastern, or Pest, side of the Danube.

When faced with forces from the West, Hungarian government chose to go with the flow creating the Arrow Cross party, a regime that committed frightening acts of terror and submission including internment, torture, and deportation of any they found threatening to their goals.

One particularly moving memorial is called Shoes on the Danube created in 2005. It represents the 3,500 people (800 of them Jewish) who were murdered by the Arrow Cross Fascists between December 1944 and January 1945. Shoes were valuable and would outlast the wearer; rivers are handy for carrying bodies downstream—away. 60 pairs of period appropriate shoes were cast in iron and displayed as if the owners just stepped out of them. Despite being a bit crowded, the memorial feels reverent and solemn. Stones, dried flowers, and candles have been left as tribute.

The Soviets liberated Hungarians and disbanded the Arrow Cross for their own rule in February of 1945. The House of Terror museum does an extraordinary job of portraying the fear and hard decisions this country had to make. It’s been designed on a former police site used for torturing political prisoners. It’s remarkable how much this part of the world has changed in my lifetime—-they were occupied behind the Iron Curtain until 1991. No free speech. Restrictions on religion. Only propaganda. It feels like dystopia except it’s reality…history. As someone who has taught The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s chilling.

The final two tributes to the Hungarian Jews who were murdered reside at the Dohány Synagogue. One is a beautifully sculpted weeping Willow called The Tree of Life. It looks silver. On each leaf are victims’ names or tattoo numbers. The magnitude of the number murdered is overwhelming when compared to something we know to be plentiful, leaves on trees. 400,000.

Around the corner from this tree is a garden. This part of the synagogue was bombed by the Arrow Cross in 1939. It housed a German stable for a time during WWII. And it was a place of forced burial for 2,000 during the Holocaust. It was renovated in 1991 into a beautiful and peaceful place of honor. There is a list of names of those buried. They surround flower beds with markers at the top. Somehow this space is both somber and peaceful.

I would say I am so grateful for getting to visit this vibrant and welcoming city. It felt easier to traverse than Vienna. Their food and architecture and music and culture really stands apart. And there is lots more to study than I had time for!

Posted by Jackie2074 14:29 Archived in Hungary Comments (0)

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