Friday, February 1, 2013


That pun was a big hit in Berlin. I got more laughs than eye rolls. It was accurate, too.

Before I jump into talking about my weekend excursion in Berlin, I just want to point out that you should be happy you haven't read a blog post in a while. It means I'm nice and busy, and life in Germany is just normal life now. I wouldn't blog about everyday life, and that's what I'm doing everyday now. Hence, from here on out I will tell you about any major excursions. Like Berlin.

This semester I'm taking a course offered by my study abroad program about the history of Germany between 1871-1990. This excursion was from Thursday to Monday last weekend and required for the course. We visited lots of museums and saw a hilarious play by Bertold Brecht, and I went to a ballet about Tchaikovsky's life. I even stayed mostly awake for it.

I'll just hit a few of the highlights. On Sunday we visited the Jewish Museum. We had a building architecture tour organized by our Program Director, which I was quite annoyed about at first, because who goes to a museum to ignore the objects and look at the building? But if (hopefully when) you visit this museum, I wouldn't recommend doing it any other way. This is one of the most interesting buildings I've ever visited. It was designed by Daniel Libeskind, the projected Ground Zero architect.

From the road, as you walk up to the building, it is tall, gray, and has no discernible entrance. The windows are strange shapes and have no organization, and the corners and roof aren't at right angles. You don't know for sure how many floors there are, or if there are floors at all. Maybe the whole building is just one giant warehouse. And you definitely don't get a perception from the front for how large the structure is. At the beginning of the tour, in the nice, normal building next door, the tour guide pointed out that the strange shape on our tickets, the angular lightning bolt, was actually the shape of the building.

Like I said, the tour started in the nice building next door. To get into the actual museum, you have to go underground. In this brightly lit, ex-courthouse, there is one gaping hole of metal and dark, with a long, steep staircase going down, around a corner, to where you can't see the end. At the bottom, you're 10 meters deep under the ground, and at the lowest part of the museum. The architect couldn't decide where the museum should start, considering how complicated Jewish history is, and so he decided to start at the lowest point. This, as you might guess, is during the National Socialist regime.

After getting to the basement part of the museum, you come upon three different intersecting hallways. They all slope upwards and lead forward in 3 directions. Each hallway is has a title, and there is very purposefully no obvious hallway to enter first. We started with the Achse des Exils [Axis of Emigration]. Along the wall of this corridor names of cities all over the world were painted where Jews fled before and during the Second World War. For example, Shanghai kept open borders to the Jews during this time period. There were also windows along the hall with display cases, mostly showing pictures of Jews on ships leaving Germany, or letters written back home about their new locations. At the end of this hallway there was a glass door, letting lots of light in, leading outside to the Garden of Exile. You can see it in the above picture, just to the left of the building. It consists of 49 (7x7) square stone pillars, each 6 meters high, and each with foliage growing at the top. 48 of the pillars represent the year Israel was founded, 1948, and the 49th represents Berlin, and stands in the middle. We weren't allowed out, probably because of the ice, but the tour guide said that during the summer, it was typical of the adults to make a slow, careful perimeter of the garden, while their children ran through every aisle and played games.

The second Axis we visited was the Aches des Holocausts. I shouldn't have to translate this one. Along the walls of this axis were names of ghettos, concentration camps, and, at the end, death camps. There were also display cases in the walls here, but the windows were tinted so darkly that you couldn't see inside unless you were standing directly in front of it. The objects in these cases were again many pictures and letters, but the difference was that at the end of each of the descriptive plaques, you would be told where the person died. Bergen-Belsen. Auschwitz. In transport. One case had a sewing machine, which was saved by an apprentice of a Jewish tailor after he was taken in the hopes that he would come back for it. He died in Auschwitz. This hallway, unlike the last, became narrower and darker when we approached the end. There was a door that I didn't notice at first, because it looked like a service door, blending into the walls. Behind the door was the Holocaust Tower. It is an empty, 24 meter high room, with no heating, nothing on the walls, and no lighting except for a small window near the top on one side. Because we were there during the morning, this was enough light to make the tower gloomy at best. If you visit at night, you can't see anything. When we filed in and the door closed, the first thing I thought, the first thing you can think, is about the gas chambers. The door closed and blended back into the wall, and it didn't feel like an exit existed. It was the most unsettling thing I have ever experienced. However, when we exited again, the guide told us very specifically that the tower was not supposed to be reminiscent of the chambers. The architect actually said it was supposed to be a sort of hopeful place. During the summer you can hear kids outside playing through the window, and it's warmer. Another interpretation of the room, because beyond "it isn't a gas chamber" the architect didn't give a definition to most of his work, is that it is the void that represents the lost history of the Jews who died during this time, and all the contributions to humanity they weren't able to make. The Void motif is throughout the entire building, with 5 Voids in total.

After returning to the crossroads from the Holocaust, the only place to go is up through the Axis of Continuity. This connects the original entrance to another gigantic staircase, leading up into the rest of the building. It takes you to the very top, and the rest of the museum winds downward through the structure, with a more normal design, showcases and objects and interactive media displays.We finished our tour in a room off to the side of the staircase, in one of the Voids. An artist designed an exhibit to fill this particular void, called Fallen Leaves. On the floor of this empty tower are 10,000 rough-hewn metal faces, representing the Jewish victims from past, present, and future. The interesting thing is that you're allowed to walk on the faces. It makes a terrible racket, like large pieces of glass being smashed with each step. Some people can't bring themselves to step on them. The people who do always make it all the way to the back. It was the most disconcerting experience for many of us, but I didn't find it so bothersome as the Tower. Maybe I didn't think hard enough about it.

Unfortunately, because the tour lasted so long, I barely had any time to spend in the actual museum, which started at the beginning of Judaism and went to present day. It was huge. After we ran out of time, it took me 10 minutes just to walk through the rest of it to get to the exit. I will therefore be returning next time I'm in Berlin, and you should too.

The other most exciting thing, for me, was the Pergamon Museum. It contained the Altar of Pergamon from the 2nd century BC, transported all the way to Berlin. There was also the Gate of Ishtar from Babylon, Market Gate of Miletus, and just an insane amount of ancient architecture and artifacts. After 4 hours with the audio guide I had seen maybe 30% of the things and unfortunately had to skim through the entire Islamic Art exhibit. So I will of course be returning here as well. (Hint: If you want to see the Altar, go before Fall 2014, because it will close for renovations and you won't see it until projected 2019) For pictures and descriptions of a few of my favorite things, look on the Facebook.

The low part of the weekend was finding my glasses in pieces underneath Cherice's backpack.

Now that I'm back I will be living in the library, because I have my final papers to write. After that, though, my family is visiting! Plans are in the works. I have been preparing by buying an appalling number of German books to send back with them for the X number of months or (god forbid) years, until I can return to Germany. I'm not sure if I'm saving myself money from the shipping costs I won't have to spend by buying them from the States, or if I'm spending way more money by justifying every purchase with this idea. I suspect the limiting factor will be the size of their suitcases.

Since I will be working hard for the foreseeable future, you won't hear from me here for a while.

Bis die Zukunft!