Blogging from Berlin

Potsdam: The Prussian Royal Palace

December 16th, 2010 by ghwolf


In Potsdam, approximately 20  miles SW of Berlin, we toured the royal city of Potsdam, home of the Prussian monarchy, the Hohenzollers. We started our tour at the Castle Gardens, which is actually an extensive park with more than two dozen castles and royal residences, all of which were built in the 18th through early 20th century. The Royal Palace was built by Frederick the Great after his victories in the Seven Years War, 1756-1763.

NCC Students in Dresden

December 16th, 2010 by ghwolf

NCC Students explore the Zwinger Castle in Dresden. The castle was built by August the Strong of Dresden in the early 18th century and is one if the best examples of royal Baroque architecture in Germany.

Dresden: Florence on the Elbe River

December 16th, 2010 by ghwolf

The romantic city, Dresden, is characterized by its Baroque architecture and beautiful cityscapes. The capital city of Saxony, Dresden was firebombed and completely destroyed in February 1945. During the German Democratic Republic, the city was only partially rebuilt; however since German unification in 1990, the city has undergone drastic renovation and has reestablished itself and the most impressive city for Baroque architecture in all of Germany.

What I Learned in Berlin

December 15th, 2010 by Rebecca Samson

Hello for one last time from Berlin!

These last few days have been amazing!  There are two things I am leaving this experience with.

Firstly:  FOOD.  There are three foods I have clinical withdrawals from if I don’t get them every so often: 1. greasy, nasty pizza, 2. semi low-quality pasta and 3. everyone’s favorite all-American delicacy…Chinese take-out.  The food here is absolutely fantastic and it’s such a wonderful experience to go to the cafes and delicious restaurants every day but it isn’t home.  I have probably eaten more than I have in my entire life in the 2.5 weeks we’ve been here and it has all been fantastic but I still need some tastes of Chicago every once and a while.  To tally some of it up, I must have had about a gallon and a half of hot chocolate, half a gallon of ‘milk coffees,’ about 9 bratwursts/currywursts, and even a taste of pig brain (accompanied by the revelation that my old German teacher fed that to my class in high school without telling us exactly what we were eating.  Then there’s the American side of food…one disgusting frozen coffee thing from Dunkin’ Doughnuts (the fact that it was gross was probably just the universe’s version of karma for setting foot in an American place in Germany, center of all foods amazing), 3 bags of chips, 2 cans of Pringles, one bag of M&M’s, one Sprite, one very bad order of duck fried rice, one order of pasta with tomato sauce (also bad), two doughnuts that lasted under five seconds because they were better than therapy, and (the kicker) the greasiest, most disgusting pizza with salami on top that was just about the best thing that I have ever tasted in my life.  YOU decide who won this one.  All of the food here is fantastic and they have the same brand of fancy restaurants we do: Italian.  I thought it would be more German restaurants because, hello, we’re in Germany, but they do the same thing we do, which is have a ton of Italian restaurants because I guess they have the same opinion of Italian food, that it’s fantastic.

Secondly: LUCK.  We never realize how truly lucky we are in America to never have had a modern war on our soil.  Today we were in Oranienburg to go visit Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp and we happened to walk from the train station to the camp because there weren’t enough cabs and we missed the buses.  We then found out that we had walked the very same route the prisoners did after they, too, arrived at the same train station.  We walked fast and it was a relatively nice temperature for that amount of exercise .  We felt cold and we slipped around a lot in the actual complex of the camp because it started snowing harder and gradually getting colder.  At least we have shoes and coats.  The prisoners only had thin, striped uniforms that almost resembled pajamas and ill-fitting shoes, if they even had shoes at all.  Those of you in Chicago have had to deal with sub zero degree weather.  Imagine no coat, no shoes, no body hair, and no heat inside your barrack that you share with likely hundreds of other people.  Oh, and be greatful if those conditions are the worst you have to suffer.  If you aren’t working in a factory where you will almost surely die, you may get to stand outside at attention for a full day with 900 other prisoners until you drop dead, frozen, or you get to go inside just one more time before you die of infection from beginning to freeze to death.  While the guard watches from his warm office watching you and then complaining that the hardest part of his job is not seeing his children more often.  Just to be sure you get the point that you aren’t going to make it, you get to see flowers growing by your barracks in summer to remind you that there is still life outside the camp as you get to walk by the “Arbeit macht frei/work sets free” sign on your way to work.  To clarify, the guards remind you that the work will set you free but only as ashes through the chimney of the ovens in building Z.  If you’re even luckier, you won’t know you’re going to die because a guard dressed like a doctor will escort you to a measuring stick with a movable bar for height.  Just as you stand with your back to it, two more guards waiting in the room behind you will shoot you in the neck.  Nobody will hear it because the walls have multiple layers to them.  The two guards rotate the task of shooting prisoners to avoid too much harm to themselves.  Other prisoners carry your body to a storage room and dump it there until a truck takes you away or maybe they put you in an oven and bury the ashes somewhere.  You won’t live to be the nice grandma who cooks the best food ever or the grandpa who smokes a pipe and complains about kids these days.  Nobody can hear you scream.  They don’t have to because they consciously choose not to know what’s happening to you and millions of others.  If someone does want to know, information’s very easy to find.  Just to add insult to injury, neo-Nazis are going to attempt to blow up a Jewish exhibition in the barracks you were in after the Soviets erect a huge monument to their beloved communist martyrs to justify their own crimes via finger-pointing at the national socialists.  Not to mention that others who wish to see where you suffered and died have to take buses that only go on specific routes through Oranienburg because their vibrations could disturb and set off bombs left in the ground if they take the wrong routes.  Oranienburg has a bomb problem about every six weeks.  These are not on side streets but in residential areas where you might see children playing.  Doesn’t it feel great not to live under those conditions right about now?  To have your children safe with you?  To have warm clothes?

This holiday season I think everyone should take a moment to consider how lucky they are and how amazing our dwindling number of survivors are.  Spend some time with your family.  Tell them that you love them.  Remind them that they are so lucky to live in an area without bombs in the roads.  Teach them they are lucky to live without facing death in concentration camps.  Most importantly, take the time to seek out elderly people who have nobody to spend time with and take the time to listen to them.  Go to a local nursing home, hospital, or even to your neighbors’ homes, sit down, and talk to them about their lives, what they’ve been through, and what they want us to know.  There may be lots of speakers and activists out there but the majority of people with these experiences aren’t and they will be gone before your children come of age.  This the most important thing Berlin teaches you: TIME IS PRECIOUS.  Whether it’s the time we spend eating what makes us feel at home or the last time we see the light of day without even knowing it, we aren’t nearly as thankful as we should be for each moment we have.  Spend your time in a meaningful way that satisfies you.  There are millions of people who had that luxury taken away from them and people who are losing it as we speak in areas where oppression still runs rampant.  If you want to give your time away, give it to someone who really needs it: the unfortunate, the ill, the abandoned, and the abused.  In Judaism, we say, “If you save one life, you save the world” so I suppose you waste the world if you waste one life.  Imagine if it was your life that was wasted and somebody let it happen.  Don’t be that somebody yourself.

Wishing you and yours lots of peace in your household and wishing that you create lots of peace in others’,

Rebecca M. Samson

Wittenberg in the snow

December 9th, 2010 by ghwolf

Romantic Wittenberg and 16th century splendor: The Old Town Hall and City Church

Wittenberg: City of Martin Luther and the Reformation

December 9th, 2010 by ghwolf

NCC students in front of Martin Luther's house in Wittenberg

On a beautiful and snow day, we traveled approximately 65 miles southwest of Berlin to the medieval city of Wittenberg, known officially as Lutherstadt Wittenberg.  Recently elevated to UNESCO status because of its 16th century architecture and importance as the epicenter of the Reformation in the 16th century, Wittenberg offered us passage back in time. We participated on a 3-hour tour of the city, Luther’s house, the famous University Church where Luther nailed his 95 Theses in 1517 and through the historical Market Plaza and Old City Hall, one of the best examples of 16th century high Renaissance architecture in Germany.

Boat tour along the River Spree

December 9th, 2010 by ghwolf

On a cold a snowy afternoon we enjoyed a boat tour along the River Spree from which we saw the historical center and governmental district of the city. The tour offers perhaps the best perspectives possible of the Bundeskanzleramt and other governmental buidlings and works of art. During the the divison of Germany from 1949-1990, the river served as a border between East and West Berlin at some points.

This is so cool

December 7th, 2010 by ludwig

Well, I am here and am starting to get comfortable with the city.
I have already done so much, and so much more than just seeing museums.
But speaking of museums, there are some great ones. We have been to the Berlin historical museum twice, the first time to see an exhibit on the ‘cult’ surrounding Hitler and the everyday propaganda that was circulated amongst the German people. It was scary to see birthday cards to Hitler written by young Germans, maybe 10 or 12 years old. He was truly able to penetrate every level of society and it is scary to think about the world Hitler would have liked to have.
Also, besides the museums, I was able to go on two optional tours on Saturday and Sunday with Dr. Wolf and explore two extremely interesting neighborhoods in old East Berlin. One of the coolest things about the neighborhoods in the old east is the contrast in architecture with a pristine, newly renovated apartment building liderally next to a run down, graffitied building that still shows the scars from East Berlin. It illustrates perfectly that although Berlin has done a wonderfull job of recovering from its turbulent past, the healing process continues. This being said, I have found the parts in the East to be by far the most vibrant, and interesting places I have gone here in Berlin.
Another very rewarding experience has been eating in small cafes or restaurants that are a bit off of the beaten path, and devoid of tourists. It gives me my best chance to order in and speak german and experience the German culture from the inside.
Today we talked with german students for about five hours about topics pertaining to globalization. It was really great to be able to ask the students opinions of the US and get a german percpective on hot-button topics like immigration, economic globalization, and mcdonalds. We also got a crash course in the structure of the german school system and to say that it is the most confusing concept we have discussed thus far would be an understatement.
In conclusion, I love it here, and I might not go home.

Perspectives on Berlin so far

December 6th, 2010 by bmboynton

We have been in Berlin for almost a week and have already experienced so much. Over the past few days we have visited various museum exhibits and locales that examine German history from a variety of perspectives. Some of the places have included the New Synagogue, the Topography of Terror, the German Historical Museum, WWII underground bunkers, remnants of the Berlin Wall, and the Checkpoint Charlie Museum. Each of these places carries meaningful information about the history of Germany from its historical beginnings up to the present moment. What I find particularly interesting is that each era has impacted how Germans think and feel today. Many of the exhibits we have visited deal with very complex and unpleasant events and topics in German history. For example, we visited a new exhibition about Hitler and the role of everyday citizens in contributing to the myth of Hitler as a charismatic leader. I admire how Germans look at such aspects of their history critically and openly in their museums without trying to hide such things from themselves or the rest of the world. I think this critical examination of dark periods of history takes great courage and is a model for how we, in America, might create memorials and museums, not just to honor the high points and ideals of our history, but also to recognize the trends toward exclusivity, racism, white imperialism, and discrimination that have caused and continue to cause catastrophic suffering for those who have been excluded from the democratic traditions we so passionately advocate. To reflect upon such aspects of history is not to offer excuses for why they happened, nor is it an attempt to argue that they did not occur. Rather, I feel, it is meant as a way of honoring all those who have suffered under oppressive regimes and ideologies by providing information about the nature and manifestation of oppression so that our generation and future generations can be more informed and hopefully change the world into a better place for all.

Being in Berlin has certainly made me start thinking more about America and how Americans, in general, interact with people from other countries and cultures. In particular, I have thought about how foreigners in America are often treated. Sometimes when a foreigner comes to America they are told to speak English or go back home. It is a repulsive message. Coming to Berlin as a foreigner I have experienced a little what it must feel like for foreigners in America to feel intimidated to speak a language they are not accustomed to speaking. Even though I have found Berliners to be very friendly and welcoming when I attempt to speak their language I still get nervous speaking to a native speaker in their native tongue. It can be hard, even when one understands everything being said in a conversation, to muster up the courage to communicate in a language that one is unfamiliar speaking everyday. I understand how it must feel for foreigners to come to America and all of a sudden be required to say everything in English. These past days have left me with greater respect for all those who come to America and must accustom themselves to speaking English with everyone they meet. On a final note, it has also been a great learning experience for me, and everyone on this trip, these last few days. I love speaking with people in German and adjusting to life in Berlin. It is a very exciting process to try new things and do everyday things in new ways. I want to absorb as much as I possibly can. I can´t wait to go to the school tomorrow. I hope the upcoming days and experiences will be as eye-opening and memorable as the last six amazing days have been.

Hidden Treasures

December 5th, 2010 by Rebecca Samson

Hallo from Berlin!

Yesterday was by far my favorite day of the trip thus far.  We went on an all day tour through Prenzlauer Berg, a neighborhood in Berlin with tons of architectural and other history.  I am by no means an architecture person, though I try and must be for this trip.  The most interesting part was when we would come across these little memorials in the most random places.  It was better than any large museum and somehow more rewarding, especially since this OPTIONAL tour lasted around 7-8 hours and we were walking for the vast, vast majority of that time.

Many of them we came across were in the courtyards of the old mietskasernen (apartment buildings from the industrial era).  The way these buildings worked was that one would have apartments from the street back and they surrounded square courtyards.  One could go farther away from the street from courtyard to courtyard.  The deeper one went into a block of units, the less sunlight there was, or there might be no sunlight at all.  Many of these were destroyed or not as large as before because of other construction/restoration projects.  The courtyards today are sunny and beautiful little islands of German history that have somehow managed to survive endless historical criticism and the [sometimes] selective memory of the German public, probably because they are so far removed from the public eye or so well hidden, even though not on purpose.

In one courtyard, all the way up an approximately four-story wall, we came across a long list of opposites: happy and sad, lucky and unlucky, guilty and innocent, etc.  It was slightly covered up on the bottom by a metal box of some sort tacked into the wall, covering the bottom few.  That’s all it was.  Opposite words separated by ‘and’.  Part of the symbolism was that the opposites are linked together rather than separated by an ‘or,’ just like Berlin itself.  Berlin brings many cultures together but has a huge, metal fence around the New Synagogue with, I kid you not, guards with machine guns at the entrances just in case of an attack by Muslims.  The wall itself looks like something straight from a concentration camp.  Berliners view the past as the past but there are older people who still refer to ‘East’ or ‘West’ Berlin in public.  Everything here is the opposite of itself while being itself at the same time.

Another hidden treasure, and my favorite thing in all of Germany, is the East German Fernsehturm (TV Tower), that big, metal ball on a stick hovering ominously over the Berlin skyline like it’s watching everything.  I wouldn’t be surprised to find it hovering over my shoulder in my bedroom mirror at home we see this thing so much and it sees us.  The planning that went into placing and sizing it had to be extraneous because of how it picturesquely fits into the windows of bombed-out church memorials, hovers over every single church in ALL of Berlin, and even shakes its head over the shoulder of the Berliner Dom, the beautiful church on the Museums Island.  I now use it as my landmark for measuring where I am.  I might be directionally challenged but I know that we’re not going to find whatever we’re looking for if we’ve been walking for over an hour and the Fernsehturm has quadrupled in size as we approach a train station over four stops away diagonally from where we started.

Tomorrow we will go to the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, talk with someone who survived the abusive side of East Germany, go to the German Historical Museum, and then finish our time together with a group meal.  I can’t wait, especially now that the coldest temperature on record in Berlin seems to have warmed and we all mostly survived it, whether or not we will ever feel our hands, feet, faces, legs, torsos, lips or ears again.  I can now say I’ve survived both extremes of Berlin: the blistering heat of July and the deep freeze and six inches of snow in December.  I can guarantee you, no matter how warm, cold, icy, snowy, sticky, rainy, gross, smelly, sunny, or dark it is, Berlin is definitely more than worth the trip.  You fall in love with the city from the moment you step off the plane and you crave to be here again from the second you step into the taxi picking you up to go to the airport.  It won’t be the big things that stick with you, but these hidden treasures Berlin hands you in courtyard shadows, graffiti, and passing glances.  Your feet will leave the city streets but you will forever walk in Berlin as you can’t stop thinking about returning until you come back and you can’t ever think of leaving, just as I now have to return to the city streets to go back to the hotel and finish writing the essay, which is due tomorrow, under the protection of the Fernsehturm.

Bis dann! (“until next time!”)

Becca Samson