Germany and Poland.
so this one might be a tough one for people to get through because i talk about my experience at the Nazi concentration camps, but I'm hoping reading it will be a learning experience as it was for me going there.
My first day in Berlin I was beyond tired! I did manage to sleep until almost noon, but I just wasn't feeling up to doing touristy things that day. But I was starving! So my first mission was to find some cheap filing food, and the best way to do that is to find a kebab place, and that I did! while I filled my grumbling stomach with a tasty kebab, I pulled out my lonely planet guidebook, a map and some brochures I picked up at my hostel and started to figure out what I wanted to do while I was in Berlin. You guys are probably wondering, or have wondered how I pick what I want to do when I get to places. So here's how I do it, when I figure out where I'm going I do two things, first I look it up in my lonely planet book, and circle everything that sounds interesting to me, then I google it. Then the first thing I do when I get to a new city I get a city map and find everything I want to do on the map and again circle it. This way as I make my way through the city I can cross off everything I’ve done, and also plan out the best route to see everything in the most time efficient way. It's also the reason why if I have time on the first day I get to a city I like to walk around and get the lay of the land so I know where the main streets are and the best routes to take when looking for the tourist attractions. So I did all of the above for Berlin, I also found a Bike tour of the city, that I was really interested in because it covered a lot of the main tourist attractions in one day and I thought a bike tour sounded like fun! I also picked up a brochure for a concentration camp, about 35 km outside of Berlin, I had planned on going to Poland at the beginning of my trip, but at this point I was thinking I wasn’t going to be able to go. So I thought it best that I should go to this concentration camp, it wasn’t something to look forward to but it was one of those thing I felt I should do, because it was a big part of history, and the reason they are still around is for people to visit them and see it in person, the survivors of the camps want people to know what they went through. This tour was only offered on Tuesday and Thursday, and it was now Sunday, so my plan was to take the bike tour on the Monday, knock off most of the touristy sights, then on Tuesday take the tour of Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, then I would see from there what I was to do next.
The bike tour was as great as I thought it would be, there were about 12 of us in the group , which is a great size for a tour group. The bikes had nice comfy seats, so spending 6 hours on it didn't leave me with a soar bum for the rest of the day. One of the first things pointed out to us on the tour was the Fernsehturm, a television tower, looks a little like the CN tower but not as big, anyway it was built in 1965 when communism ruled Berlin and they only allowed churches because it was also a way to spy on people, and was built in East Berlin, besides its being a television tower, the story behind it is that they wanted a tower bigger then the one in West Berlin to show power and also as a sign of communism. But it actually end up back firing on them because of the design of the tower, when the sun shines on the Fernsehturm's tiled stainless steel dome, the reflection appears in the form of a cross. Berliners named the luminous cross Rache des Papstes, or "Pope's Revenge".
One stop on the tour was at the Holocaust Memorial for all the Jews of Europe that were murdered, when they first decided to build this memorial they asked the public for ideas of what they should build as a memorial, they got stupid and down right offensive suggestions like, to build a huge oven that burns all the time, or a giant cube covered in blood, these ideas were tossed out the window very quickly. The guy who designed the one thats there now, actually had two idea's his first was to build a giant maze that was just so intense once you were inside you would feel lost, lonely and scared, basically the feelings that all the people went through during the Holocaust, but they were worried that people would start to freak out and try to climb over the walls and in turn hurt themselves or even kill themselves. So they went with his second idea, which was 2,711 blocks all different heights, it does give you the same kind of feeling he wanted out of the maze because if you go far enough into the blocks they're higher then you and you have no idea where you are. And a side note, in this area is also the hotel where Michael Jackson dangled his baby off the balcony!
Another stop on the tour was at a small piece of the Berlin wall, right across the street from a building that was were the secret police know as Stasi abbreviation of the German word Staatssicherheit, literally State Security. In this building a guy, I don’t remember his name but he worked there and one day he hid his family (his wife and son) in the bathroom until everyone went home for the day. He then took a hammer and tied it to nylon, and threw it over the wall, then him and his family zip lined to freedom. We also stopped at the last remaining watchtower of the Berlin wall. Each tower had two guards, they were told to shoot anyone trying to escape over the wall, pretty much if someone got too close to the wall they could shoot them. And if one guard even hesitated to shoot someone or didn’t shoot them the other guards could and would shoot the other guard. We went by the government buildings. At this point of the tour the dark clouds were starting to roll in, I had looked at the weather the day before and it called for rain all day but up to this point it was nice and sunny. Only minutes after leaving the government buildings, the rain started luckily it was near the end of the tour, so I only had to ride in the rain for about 10 minutes. I got to see a lot of other sites as well, like the museum island, which is exactly what it sounds, an island of museums. The way the river runs through Berlin one part is pretty much an island because the river splits in two at one point. Oh one thing I did see which I think is a great memorial, in the time of Nazi Germany, a lot of books were banned, and in turn burned. So what they did was underground, they have empty book shelves that would hold the number of books that were burned during that time, and you look down into this hole through glass. So basically if you’re not looking for this memorial you'll never find it. It was hard to take pictures of, so if you google Nazi Booking Burning Memorial you can get a better idea of what it is.
The next day was the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, now I'm not a big fan of tours but because this was going to be my first experience of something that could really be emotionally draining and my lack of in depth knowledge I wanted to take a guided tour. I wasn’t really sure how to feel going into it, I was really nervous and maybe a little bit scared as well. I was glad that the group was only about 8 people including the tour guide; it made it a lot easier to listen to the guide and not be bombarded with huge group of tourist, where you’re struggling to see and hear what the guide is talking about. We took the train from Berlin to the Concentration Camp, the train was about a 10 -15 minute walk from the camp, and our guide wanted us to walk down instead of taking the bus because its the exact same way they would have walked the prisoners down the street. And the guards would encourage the people living on the street to come stand outside and throw stuff at the prisoners call the names, whatever they wanted pretty much. The main gate of every concentration camp said, "ARBEIT MACHT FREI" a German phrase meaning "work brings freedom". After walking through the gates, you were right in the middle of where they had roll call, there were barracks there at one time but because the camp was still used after the Nazi's they were knocked down. The Prisoners were woken up and had 45 minutes to wash, dress, and eat before getting to roll call, if they were late they would be beaten and most likely die. 45 minutes may seem like a lot of time but the barracks which should have held about 40 people (rough guess) were housing up to 400 people, so in this small little space you could imagine how hard it would be to get ready in the amount of time. Once at roll call if they miss counted, no matter whose fault it was they would have to start all over again, they were out there for 12 hours at a time sometimes. And because of the poor living conditions the lack of food they received, prisoners couldn't keep standing and would die from exhaustion, and if they were to slouch the guards would beat them, and they would die. For me personally, the felt sick the whole time I was in there, the same sort of feeling I get when I'm in a hospital. I was taking it as a learning experience, I'm sure it's not supposed to be something you can go and see and that’s it, it definitely affects you, and makes you think. The tour was a few hours long, and for the most part I thought I was handling it really well, when we walked into the crematorium, my stomach did do a little flip, our guide walked us through the whole process. The prisoners were first told they needed a medical exam, so they were taken into a building that looked like a doctors office, in the first room they got the prisoners details, then they went into the next room, where they were told they needed to me measured, so the "doctor" would ask them to stand against the wall and there would be a measuring stick, that had a piece at the top that they would bring down to the top of their head, then the "doctor" would excuse himself for a minute. He would do this because behind the wall where the prisoner was standing against, would be the executioner. There was a hole in the wall, and by having the prisoner measure him/herself; the executioner would know exactly where to shoot to kill the prisoner right away. This wasn’t always done like this, before that they would shoot them outside, but because the guys doing the killings had to do so many it was starting to take an emotional impact on them, so they would have to be sent away for the weekend to cope with it. So then they came up with the plan of being behind the wall so they wouldn’t actually have to see the person they were killing. So after the person was shot inside, they were dragged through another room, which is where they burned the bodies, and the original ovens were still there. At this point I'm feeling a little bit depressed, you never know how you're going to react to something like that, but I think the point of going to see things like this is to make you understand just how horrible it was, and what other humans went through. After that part of the camp we went over the infirmary, where more harm then good was done. It was used a lot for testing drugs on prisoners, for the no purpose really but just because they could. I couldn’t actually stomach staying in there for more then 5 minutes. At this point of the tour I’ve been through almost all of the camp, and its all playing back in my head, how people even managed to survive this is just beyond words. In later years people who lived in that area were asked why they didn't do anything and how they could let something like that happen, so close to their homes, their answer, "we didn't know". But they watched the prisoners being marched down the street, they saw people go in but never come out, bodies being burned day in and day out. It seems hard not to know what was going on.
I watched a movie called "the boy in the stripped pajamas", if you haven’t seen it before I would recommend it, you'll understand about the smell of the bodies and living so close to concentration camp. It's a sad movie, but one worth watching.
When I got back to Berlin I decided to take a walk down to the East Side Gallery, the longest remaining part of the Berlin wall, which is covered in paintings. They didn’t want the wall completely knocked down because they wanted to use it as a memorial of freedom. So they had artist come and paint the wall, in 1990. After almost 20 years they decided to repaint and restore the wall, because of weather, air pollution and graffiti. The wall that’s left stretches 1.3km, and has about 106 paintings, I took pictures of the ones I liked best, but they were still in the process of repainting, most by the same artist that painted them in 1990.
While I was walking around Berlin, I was thinking about what I just experienced, and how glad I was to have done it. But I was also thinking about the next few days I had left in Berlin, and I thought that I’ve seen pretty much all I can and want to see there, so if I was to leave the next day I would have two extra days. So I started thinking about what I’ve seen so far on my trip and what haven’t seen, and I thought maybe I should try and get to Poland and Czech Republic. They were in my original plans but I had taken them off when I started the Europe leg of my trip, I had heard over and over again from a lot of backpackers that Praha (Prague) in the Czech Republic was a great city to visit. So I went back to my hostel got my rail pass, timetable, and calendar to see what I could do. I figured out that I could leave the next morning, arrive in Krakow, Poland that evening, stay a whole day there take a night train to Prague, keep my bags in a locker at the train station and visit the city during the day and then take a night train to my friends house in Germany. I kept thinking it over and over in my head, and then decided to go to the train station and see if it was possible, my first plan was to only inquire about the trains, then maybe go get something to eat and then go back if I wanted to do it. Well I went into the train station and 10 minutes later I came out with all my train tickets! I was on my way to Poland the next morning! I was excited and nervous and a lot of other emotions at that time. I even forgot to eat dinner cause I was just to overwhelmed with what I had just done! haha I went back to my hostel packed all my stuff and went to bed and the next morning I was on my way!
It was a 9 hour train ride that seemed to take forever! I'm glad that I booked my hostel in advance though, because it was a great location, not to far from the train station and the city center, and the people at the hostel were just great! I dropped my bags in my room, then went to get something to eat and explored around a little bit, ice cream was super cheap there so I got some coconut flavour ice cream, and it was yummy! and I won’t lie, in the day and a half I was there I had 4 ice creams, cause it was that good and that cheap haha.
The main reason for Poland, was to go to Auschwitz, probably the most well known of the concentration camps, and is actually 3 camps, but 2 of them were used as extermination camps, and were the largest out of all the camps. Auschwitz I was the main camp, and served as the administrative centre for the whole complex.
Again the gates read, "ARBEIT MACHT FREI". Going into this camp, i was a little more prepared having been to the one in Germany. i think if i had went to Auschwitz first it would have been a lot harder for me to get through it. For this camp i decided to buy a little guide book of the camp, so i could tour it by myself. This camp is a lot more visited then the first one i went to so there were crowds of people there and i did not want to take a tour, where i was rushed through the whole experience. I spent almost 3 hours hours in the first camp, taking my time, reading through the signs, and my guide book. One thing i saw while i was in there that really got me, was a picture of a lady who weighed the same as me when she went into the camp, then in the picture they had posted she weighed 50 pounds, and you could see the bones through her skin. It was scary to see that. One room had behind a glass window was all the suitcases they found later, and one room had all the shoes, and one room had all the hair brushes and one room that i had my mouth on the floor when i saw it was filled with wooden legs, and other had hair that they used to shave off the women when they were killed in the gas chambers, and they used to sell it. There was one part of the camp, where i was in a building that they turned into a museum, and it was all pictures of prisoners and newspapers from that time, and they even had pictures of them burning people out in the open; and i was walking through it, it was quite dark in there and i was by myself at this point, and i was scared to be in there, if thats the way they had intended to make people feel looking through there, which I'm sure it was, job well done.
In the basement of one of the buildings they used it for cells for individuals who had violated rules. They had 4 standing cells, which you literally had to crawl through a hole to get into them, they were 16 sq ft, with 4 men standing in them and you could do nothing but stand, and they were forced to work during the day. There were also starvation cells, where prisoners were kept without food or water until they were dead. In this basement they also experimented with Zyklon B, they tested it on Russian and Polish prisoners first in the basement, this then paved the way for the gas chamber using Zyklon B. I did go into the crematorium and gas chamber in Auschwitz I, i found it a little bit easier in there then the first camp i went to because it was all reconstructed, but it was still erie, the thought of standing where so many others lost their lives.
I then made my way to Auschwitz II (Birkenau), which was built to relieve, some of the congestion at Auschwitz I. Birkenau was huge, to walk from front to back takes almost an hour, I'm not sure how long it would take to walk around the circumference of the camp. This camp was the largest extermination camp, brought in by train the prisoners if they were fit enough to work, would be taken to one part of the camp and if they weren't which was mostly women and children, they would brought to the gas chambers right away, they were told they were going to the showers to be cleaned off. Only to walk right into their death, some part of me thinks they were the lucky ones. The living conditions of this camp was far worse then Auschwitz I, the barracks, were built as stables to hold 52 horses, they housed 400 people at a time, in bunk beds, each with up two 5 people per bed. The floors were made of mud and dirt, there was no heating, and the toilets were just holes.
The gas chambers and crematoriums were destroyed by the Nazi's in there attempt to cover up evidence of what they had done, but there is still a pond that they filled with the ashes. This camp is also where they burned people outside, they pilled up the bodies and set them on fire, outside in the open because they were killing so many people it was just piling up in the crematorium. They have a memorial at Birkenau, it's in 21 languages and says," Forever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women and children, mainly Jews, from various countries of Europe."
After i left the camp, i went back to the city i was staying in Krakow, and spent the rest of the day walking around the city, eating some ice cream, and taking in the sights. Then i went back to my hostel picked up my bags and headed for the train, up next was Praha (aka Prague)!
Ps. make love not war.