It was the height of June when 21 or so rogue youths set off for their destination of Luton Airport, pulling nothing but the heavy weight of expectation and a suitcase, all bound for Berlin, Germany.
Once the wheels of the plane had landed on the German tarmac of Berlin Schoenefeld, the party left EasyJet flight 2103 with eagerness to experience this new place. The scape of the city felt very much different from back home; the new ways and words around us were freshly revitalising. Luckily in visiting this new country we were shepherded by our tour guide Andrew Pennington who knew the ins and outs of the city. Our first destination was none other than the Anderson Hotel, which provided a comfy pillow to rest our head and our thoughts for the night, in preparation for the ever coming tomorrow. The evenings were a time to relax and reflect, punctuated by the wit of our mentors.
The next morning we were instructed towards an empty station, filled only with the excited babble of adventuring youths. The air was brisk both with the crispness left by the departing night and with the fresh scent of thrill that always surrounds any trip.We were hustled on board the next train which felt destined for the day ahead. As the train purred it’s way out of the station the suburbs of Berlin disappeared into a blur leaving only our plans in focus. Upon arriving at our station, a solitary nod was given out amongst the group against the familiar voice of the train – ‘Ausgang auf dem linken seite’.
After guessing right and getting off on the left, we were thrown into the busy life of Berlin. Walking up the stairs of the subway, the blue sky offered a backdrop for iconic sites such as the Brandenburg Gate. The informative words of Pennington painted the picture of what once stood where the tourists were, and put a real perspective on the land which changed so much of Germany’s history. We rambled across German cobbles, every now and again bumping into a mortified soul – ‘es tut mir Leid!’ exclaimed Jamie in an effort to justify his sense of balance. Turning another corner we found ourselves face to face with the Reichstag, the former government building – an impressive sight to the eye and interesting to the ear. Walking its streets revealed hidden secrets of history – a pavement corner was the site of Hitler’s bunker or a gap in the trees revealed a memorial to Socialist repression. It felt like Berlin had effortlessly weaved a lifelong history and culture into a place where one could buy coffee just across the square from the Brandenburg Gate – Backer Weidemann was this place in question; a friendly soul which did a good latte and bagel, as the American chap in front of us discovered. Frequent gaps in the tour allowed us to take time out to catch our breath or a bite to eat, or browse souvenir shops situated on Berlin pavements.
‘Into the subway!’ was the common cry from Pennington, it reminded us a new place was yet to be discovered. One of these was the Wannsee Conference House. The walls here revealed to us that this was the place where the most important members of the Nazi party decided the ‘Final Solution’- and all over breakfast. The deatched evil of it all seemed too distant to be true- yet the realisation that this monster of humanity occurred only 70 short years ago held heavy in our hearts as we set off towards Grunewald Bahnhof; an unvarnished reminder of the horror that the peoples the Nazis chose to persecute must have experienced. However, it made us think of how in 70 years people may look back on todays ongoings to see a similar monstrosity somewhere in the world. These thoughts were also triggered as we stood at Grunewald Bahnhof. We felt wary of what the train station had been when these 50,000 innocent lives had been transported off to concentration and labour camps; yet words and pictures now may do no justice on history. The facts indented into the metal platform gave a sharp insight into when, how, what and who but not why.
Arbeit macht frei (work sets you free) the words on the gates to Sachsenhausen offer a stark reminder of what went on in the concentration camp – 30,000 prisoners died there from exhaustion, disease, malnutrition or pneumonia due to the poor living conditions as well as the many who died as a result of the brutal medical testing that went on there. The moment you walk through the gates and look upon the ground on which inspections were held or walking along the route that was used for death marches,it’s impossible not to get the deep, unsettling feeling that this is a place of deep, malicious, unnecessary evil.. The bright Berlin sunshine did not stop the shivers that inevitably ran down our spines as we toured the site where the tens of thousands of dead were cremated. Nor did it stop the icy feeling we felt as Pennington described how prisoners were forced to take sledge hammers to their own dead, as bone crushers were too expensive, nor even as we looked round the hut that had been torched by Neo-Nazis; this last artefact left as a reminder that there are those out there today that would repeat this genocide.
In Berlin following a tour of Sachsenhausen we visited the Memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe, a very interesting piece of architecture that was created to offer an insight into how the Jews might have felt during the Holocaust. We heard how they had coated the two thousand concrete blocks, arranged so as to disorientate the visitor, in a special paint that makes graffiti simply wipe off, yet, stupidly, did not realise that the same company that made this chemical also made the gas for Auschwitz. The memorial was disconcerting to say the least and left the group with the disconcerted feel that contrasted greatly with the barely suppressed excitement that had almost become symbolic of our trip. Once again we heard the all familiar call of “To the subway” and off we went to the next site on an endless trail of exploration.
The subway zoomed through the city carrying our cameras and thoughts, and stepping out into the Berlin sunlight allowed us to absorb the city feel. The Sunday afternoon gave us chance to stop by the Berlin Wall and Checkpoint Charlie. The guards which once might have stood were now replaced by stall owners who we enjoyed bartering with for the best price of a beret. We carried ourselves down great roads, occasionally stopping for the brief (although, in some cases not so brief) story of Berlin’s great sites, as told by Pennington. . We enjoyed seeing magnificent buildings such as the Berliner Fernsehturm or Dom through the viewfinder, as we walked past street performers and other interesting fellows. The restaurant and bowling in the evening was a nice social occasion to discuss the vibrancy of the last couple of days, before our minds set on the next and the returning flight home.
As Germany drifted lazily past the plane window, our minds turned to our trip and all the great sights we’d seen, and of the stories we’d carry with us for quite some time. It was thought-provoking to see the city that had been at the forefront of so much history we’d studied, finally, in the flesh, looking at both the historical landmarks that had signposted Europe, but also the untold Berlin; the modern, thriving capital of a united Germany.
We’d like to thank Commander Pennington, Elson, Brown and Tipper for their work in organising the expedition.
Jamie and James
A special thanks to Andrew Wright for his excellent work editing this piece and adding many passages
Thanks as well to Stef Williams for proof reading and to Oliver O’Driscoll for the use of his portrait