After an early morning wake-up and a quick breakfast, we were headed out for a long day—starting with a visit to, and tour of, the headquarters and prison complex of the former East German secret police, known as Stasi. Upon arriving to Hohenschonhausen (its official name), our group (minus a few who had stayed behind due to illness) was greeted by Mr. Hans Scheidler, our tour guide. The tour given by the Hohenschonhausen museum was rather unique compared to any of the others we’ve experienced for one specific reason: our guide, and almost every guide the museum employs, was previously incarcerated at the Stasi prison. However, Mr. Scheidler did not reveal his “crime” to us right away, preferring to keep it secret until he saw fit.

As the tour progressed, we saw former Stasi office and administrative buildings, the area where prisoners were first unloaded, two prison cell blocks, and finally the interrogation rooms. Mr. Scheidler basically guided us through how new prisoners were processed at Hohenschonhausen: first the unloading room, then to be strip searched and have your belongings confiscated, and eventually you would be put into a cell. His own experience was that of solitary confinement, which he endured for months until he feigned a suicide attempt to escape the loneliness.

Following the end of World War II when the defeated Germany was divided by the victorious allies, the newly formed Soviet government in the eastern half of Berlin established the Stasi secret police to keep tabs on their new society. Anyone and everyone were spied upon in various ways—families and neighbors and coworkers would report any action they thought was treasonous. In turn, the Stasi recorded this information (along with a bevy of other extremely personal bits of information) with the possible intention of using it to arrest you later on. Though during this time, one could be arrested for simply bad-mouthing the government or showing any small sign of protest—which is what Mr. Scheidler had done. Once we reached the interrogation rooms within the complex, he decided to tell us of his “heinous” crime. Upon hearing of the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union in 1968, the young Scheidler and a few of his college friends decided to create a bunch of leaflets in protest which said the following:

“Citizens- Comrades. Foreign tanks in Czechoslovakia only serve the class enemy. Think about the reputation of Socialism in the world. Demand truthful information. Nobody is too stupid to think for themselves.”

For this simple act, he and his friends were given prison sentences at Hohenschonhausen. For a year and a half, Mr. Scheidler lived within the confines of the horrid place he now frequently returned to. In the beginning, he told us, he couldn’t stand to talk about his experience but was always haunted by the memories. Only after he decided to give tours for the museum did he actually come to terms with the past, which was quite uplifting to hear. As he sat in the interrogator’s chair, finally on the opposite side of where he had once been, the sheer power of his story of survival during a time of great injustice became awe-inspiring.

When we finished at Hohnenschoenhausen, we made our way to the DDR museum where we enjoyed a lunch of popular dishes from the former east. A couple of us were brave and tried the DDR version of coke, an interesting mixture of lemon flavoring and flat cola. Needless to say, it wasn’t a big hit. After lunch, we went on a tour of the museum, but this tour was different from any other tour we had been on since we got to Europe because it was interactive. We were actually able to touch things on display and open drawers and see real versions of popular toys, clothes, and common household items. We were also able to see a pair of the denim knock off 501 Levi’s jeans that were popular in the east. The east version was made with a lovely plaid pattern that we couldn’t seem to get over. Our tour guide explained to us that those were the jeans everyone wore unless you were lucky enough to have a relative in the west that was willing to send you a pair of real 501’s, a pair without plaid. But if you dared wear them to school your teacher would pull you aside and say how you shouldn’t be wearing “Socialist product” and instruct you to go change. So the daily ritual of leaving the house in normal jeans changing into a plaid pair for school and back into normal ones after you left to go home became routine for young kids of the east.

After exploring the museum and our little fashion history lesson we had a question and answer session with the director of the DDR museum, Mr. Stefan Wolle. Mr. Wolle discussed with us what life behind the wall was like as well as anti-Semitism in the former East. Talking with him gave us a completely different view of what life was like in the east in comparison to the version we had received earlier in the day at Hohenschoenhausen. He explained that people in the east had normal lives: they went to work, got married, had kids, did everything people in the west did. He told us that when the wall fell, everything for easterners changed. Top nurses who had been assisting surgeons in complex surgeries for years now had to start on the bottom and go through all sorts of school and training just because they were from the east, therefore making their former education inadequate. He discussed how any thoughts or ideas that came from the east were considered bad and invalid when met with their western counterparts.

Today we were able to see two completely different versions of the same situation and it was very interesting to be able to compare them. On one side, people said that nothing positive ever came from the East and that it was just a completely terrible awful place and on the other side the point was made that people lived as normal of lives as anyone else. So really, when you think about it, it all comes down to perspective and the pair of lenses you select for yourself when looking at a situation that has more than enough evidence to support of both sides of the argument.

Today, we were supposed to go to Potsdam for the day, but because of the cold, some of us opted to go to the Museum Island instead. I was one of those people.

The first museum we went to was the Pergamon Museum, named for the Greek altar on display there. Personally, I had expected the alter to be smaller, like the kind that you would find in a church, so I was surprised at how big it was. The Pergamon Alter is a full-sized Ancient Greek sacrificial alter that once stood atop a hill that looked out over the sea. You can even climb the steps to see where the sacrifices would have been made. In the next room, they have a Roman market gate, the largest original structure to be displayed in a museum. The gate is over two stories high and made of stone. The next room holds a gate from Ancient Babylon. This one is very colorful, made with glazed bricks. Bulls and dragons stand against a deep blue background, warning off enemies. In that same room, they also have a small stretch of the walkway that would have led up to the Babylonian gate, also very colorful. We learned that this gate connected to our theme, since the Jews were persecuted and forced into exile under the Babylonian king, Nebakenezer. On the second floor, they have a museum of Islamic art, which contains an entire room from an ancient Islamic house that would have been used for greeting and entertaining guests, along with a small stretch of the wall of a palace that was never completed. I thought that this museum was amazing and would definitely go back the next time I came to Berlin.

After we were done touring the beautiful Pergamon museum we headed over to a nice little restaurant for lunch that served Asian cuisine. It was a very relaxed day where we could all go at our own pace through the museums and got to sit down at lunch without having to be somewhere by a certain time. After lunch we went to the Alte Nationalgalerie which was located in the same area as the Pergamon. I don’t know too much about art so I wasn’t sure what to expect but right as you walked up the marble staircase you’re in awe. The sculptures are extremely breathtaking and I’ve never seen such big paintings before. The first sculpture that caught my eye was one of the god Pan comforting Psyche. She is a young girl who is heartbroken by the loss of her lover and Pan is god who is half man half god that is known for causing chaos; this sculpture is a rare depiction of pan as a paternal figure who is trying to comfort Psyche. The next piece of art that I thought was fascinating was a depiction of death dancing on a road and people following behind him. What is interesting about this is that there are kings and religious leaders behind death showing no matter how important you are in your life you cannot cheat death. I did not get to see the whole museum because we were on a bit of a time crunch, but from what I saw I really enjoyed Arnold Bocklin’s work. He used a lot of religious and mythical inspirations in his art which made for interesting and creative pieces. If I ever come back to Berlin I would like to explore this museum in its entirety.

​We went to something that’s called the Topography of Terror today. All of us thought it was going to be outside, and none of us was looking forward to another two hours straight outside. When we got there though the tour was inside, and it was more like a museum. Apparently, it used to be partly inside and partly outside, but they must have changed it recently.

​Well, after the Topography of Terror, most of the group (except for two of the boys) had tickets for the opera and all of us were pretty excited about it. We knew what we were going to see, and as far as I know everyone going knew the story: Orpheus and his fiancée who was bitten by a snake in the garden and dies. Orpheus calls upon the gods to beg for a way to get her back, and they send him to the underworld to do so, and send him with a musical instrument to keep him and his wife from being harmed (if he or she came to trouble he would just play the instrument, and they would be safe). The one catch was that he could not look her in the face while they were in the underworld or else she would be gone forever. He went to the underworld, found his fiancée, but she noticed that he wouldn’t look at her and thought that he didn’t love her anymore. She kept begging him to look at her, and at one point she basically says, “I’m not going any farther until you look at me.” They were so close to the place where they would cross over out of the underworld. (If I were him at that point, knowing that she would disappear forever if I did look at her, I would have thrown her over my shoulder.) Because she insisted he looked, and she was gone forever.

​We all expected the opera to be a love story gone wrong that we all knew well. However, it turns out that there was a different take on the story that we knew so well: it was a parody. Orpheus ends up getting the snake placed into the garden by what seemed to be “the gods” killing his fiancée on purpose out of irritation (she broke his violin). “The gods” then go with Orpheus to the underworld. (To get her back? I don’t know. It was all in German so it was hard to understand it in parody mode. Maybe he felt bad for what he did.) His fiancée was flirting with three or four different guys in the underworld, including the god that tricked her into getting bitten by the snake. After that I lose all possible idea of what was going on. There are bits and pieces that make sense, but they don’t fit in with the original story.

​I still enjoyed seeing it, but I think I would have enjoyed it more if I had seen the original story as a play or an opera before-hand, and had been able to understand it for that matter.

Today was a day that I was extremely excited for, getting to see the East Side Gallery. It was a bit colder out than usual so we tried to bundle up for a long day outside. We took the train to meet Mr. Gunther Shaefer, the man who is responsible for what is now known as the East Side Gallery. We approached the wall and I was stunned by the vastness of it. I didn’t expect the wall to be as big as it was with so many beautiful and different pieces of art on it. I asked Mr. Shaefer how much space each artist gets and he said on average 10 meters but some wanted less which made it easier to give other artists more if they wanted it. It was so many special pieces of art put into one place and it shows a unique artistic view on oppression and what was happening when the wall collapsed. All the concepts were fresh wounds put straight on the wall as other parts of it were crumbling. Mr. Shaefer said they thought that they would paint parts of the wall and it would collapse like everywhere else, and he was shocked when the city protected it as a monument. What is beautiful to me is that these artists put all their feelings into a 10 meter painting without the thought of getting recognition for their work, and to me that is what a true artist is.

A lot of the paintings we saw while walking beside the gallery with Mr. Shaefer showed paintings of what the artists actually saw as the boarders opened. There were images of people rushing over the gate, or people on ladders trying to get a glimpse of their relatives on the other side of the wall. All of these seemed to be very literal and gave a glimpse into how the life around the Berlin Wall really was. Others were more abstract or symbolic. Two stood out to me in particular, the first one was a thumbs up with a ring around the thumb connected with a chain to a bracelet around the wrist. I think this symbolizes the kind of oppression man forces upon himself, and on the surface everything looks good but in reality it will hurt everyone. In the next painting I found interesting, the artist put multiple handprints all over the wall. She left room for people to trace their handprints around hers, and this is the only painting on the wall that doesn’t have to be cleaned of graffiti because the graffiti is supposed to be there. I think this represents a sort of solidarity between people, especially with the unification of the East and West after the fall of the wall. As we got to the end of the wall one of the last pictures was of a German flag that was overlapped by an Israeli flag. This was particularly interesting to me because I am very interested in the Arab Israeli conflict and Israel as a nation in general. I learned that the man who painted it was also the man who was giving us the tour. I was extremely excited that such a talented man was giving us the tour. The whole concept of this painting is wonderful to me, the fact that it is so simple yet it gets such a response from people. He mentioned that every year he has to restore the painting numerous times due to anti-Semitic graffiti from neo-Nazis and other hate groups. It shows that anti-Semitism is still very alive in Germany and it is really powerful to think that no matter how many times it has been vandalized he is going to keep restoring it. I also think this painting is politically controversial because of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the fact that some people don’t support Israel as a nation due to the mistreatment of the Palestinians. No matter what your political beliefs are this image is one that I hold separate from the others on the berlin wall due to the fact that it doesn’t so much focus on the fall of the wall and the separation of the East and the West, it focuses more on the aftermath of the Holocaust and Germanys relationship with the Jews. It’s a beautiful and unique piece and I really enjoyed the tour through the East Side Gallery.

We had the opportunity to visit Mr. Schaefer’s personal studio. When we came in the first thing he showed us before we were able to walk around on our own was a collage of things he collected from the fall of the wall. There were pieces of the wall, a sign that said Halt! And other fragments like barbed wire. It is a piece of history frozen in time on his wall and it was wonderful. After he showed us that piece he gave us free reign to look at all his work around the studio. The first thing that caught my eye was the same German flag with the Israeli flag over it, but this time it was made with paint chips from the original piece done on the wall. He collected the fragments every time he had to repaint the flag due to graffiti. There were also paintbrushes that he used framing the flag with what looked like newspaper clippings wrapping them. In the center of the Star of David there were words saying something along the lines of “never forget.” One of the newspaper articles that I remember distinctly talked about the Hitlergross – the Nazi salute that was done at Mr. Schaefer’s artwork by neo-Nazis who are against the state of Israel. The next piece of art that caught my eye were photographs of Cristo and Jean Claude’s work in “wrapping monuments” and one of their most famous pieces was the wrapping of the Reichstag in Berlin. They wrap the monuments in a metallic cloth, I’m not sure exactly what the material is but it’s rare, and this forces people who pass the monument daily to acknowledge it because otherwise they wouldn’t. To me this is ingenious, I struggled with the idea that people pass by these important monuments in their daily life and they don’t even acknowledge, obviously the idea of that bothered someone else as well. Mr. Schaefer told a story about how Bill Clinton tried to get a piece of this fabric during his presidency and the artists refused, and somehow Mr. Schaefer ended up with four pieces, he is quite the opportunist. The last piece of work I noticed is the one that I find most interesting. I am a religion major and I not only study the positive things that religion can do for people, but I also study what happenes when organized religion can go terribly wrong. There is a photograph on his wall of the destruction at Waco, Texas. He pulled fragments of wood out of the mess and put it into the shape of a cross with different saying about religion on the cross and it really showed what can happen when there is a deadly mixture of religion in the hands of someone that is power-hungry and charismatic. So many people can be taken advantage of when they hunger for someone to follow, and for something to believe in. This piece really pulled at my heart because it shows what kind of destruction can happen when religion is abused, and I thought it was a hauntingly accurate description of the events at Waco, Texas, yet it is a piece that gives you a sort of hope. Mr. Schaefer was very kind letting us into his studio, and he was also generous enough to sign copies of the book most of us bought of his work. He is a very talented and wonderful person and I won’t soon forget this experience.

After we thanked Mr. Schaefer for inviting us over, we went to lunch, and then took taxis to the Berlin Wall Memorial. I think at this point everyone was dragging their feet because of the cold, I think this was the coldest day so far on the trip. Once we got there we wasted no time and went straight out to where the wall used to be. Our tour guide showed us many different spots and showed pictures of what the area we were standing in would have looked like if we were there during the time the wall was standing. We approached a place where there were pictures of people who died due to the wall. The first thing I noticed was that there were a handful of children in that wall, and there was no way that a five year old tried to jump over it. She explained to us that some children drowned when they would play by the river that separated the East from the West. The children from the West would fall into the river and they couldn’t swim. Because the river was considered part of the East, Westerners couldn’t jump in to save them due to the fear of being shot, and Eastern officials did nothing. This was a horrifying image, the idea of being so scared for your life and so helpless that you can’t do anything but watch as someone drowns. Not to mention the numerous photos of men and women who tried to flee the east to get to a better life in the West. Can you imagine how life must have been in the East to risk being shot to get to the other side? At this point in the tour the tour guide asked us if we wanted to go back due to the weather and we said yes, it had been a long day in the freezing cold and we wanted to cut it a bit short, the tour was extremely interesting and not to mention sad. Today was an extremely interesting and informative day, and I am glad to have had the opportunity to see all these things.

Oh, hi! I didn’t see you there! Have you been waiting long? No matter, let’s dive headfirst into day twelve of our trip, shall we?

I woke up this morning to the raised voices of the group in the room above us. This seems to be a daily ritual for them, as they were laughing and talking loudly the morning before, and the morning before THAT. My cot was harder than usual, and there was a chill in the air. As my alarm rings through my half-asleep ears, I look at the time.

“Hmmmm… Six o’clock… Don’t have to be up until ten-thirty.” Eyes close.

I shoot awake. The clock reads nine-forty five. Well, that doesn’t give me much time for breakfast. As I jump into the shower, I look fondly back at the first week of our time here in Europe. Jet-lagged and in the early grips of a cold out to kill me, my internal clock had me in bed by about eight, and up in the morning around three. While yes, this did mean that I missed out on any and all fun the group decided to engage in during the evening, I knew for a fact I needn’t be afraid of accidentally sleeping in.

Now here I am, adjusted to the time difference from home, falling back into the accidental sleeping in routine.

I don’t even bother trying to eat.

We all gather in the same small room in which we met Mr. Helmut Stern (See ‘We’ll Remember, Anyway…) two days prior. Instead of the sharp old violinist, we are greeted with a younger man. A historian, he calls himself. Thomas Werneke is a history teacher from Potsdam, and he comes prepared with an approximately hour and a half lesson focused on the period of time from the end of WWII up until our time. He largely speaks on the effects that both the Allied powers and the ex-Nazis had on the political climates that were shaping and shifting in the divided Germany. It is interesting to hear that many of the ex-Nazis went on to have positions of political power and influence in the new Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany).

Being a sucker for History lessons, especially when they are taught by a GOOD history teacher, I thoroughly enjoy the hour and a half. At the end of his lesson, I ask about the state of Anti-Semitism in today’s Germany, and he morosely tells us that there is evidence from surveys conducted to the people of Germany, that approximately a quarter of the population shows a leaning toward Anti-Semitic thinking, whether it is through reinforced stereotyping, or extremist idealism.

He says that while it is almost impossible to know nowadays whether someone is leaning on the Anti-Semitic side due to the anti-racism laws in Germany, he is slightly afraid for the future.

After his lesson is over, we all meet for lunch. I like lunch.

But I don’t think I much like this lunch. Some sort of pasta. With Chef Boyardee sauce. It does the job of filling my stomach, but nothing more.

Today we are doing something that is slightly rare, we have been invited to the home of one Ms. Siebner. According to our professors, it is extremely rare to be invited to meet someone in their own home.

Ms. Siebner warmly greets us at the door, and leads us out from the cold into her warm home. Insisting that we all sit oriented so that she can see our faces, we all take turns telling her where we are from.

“Minnesota.”
“Minnesota.”
“Minnesota.”
“Minnesota.”
“Minnesota.”
“… Washington.”
You get the idea.

It was comical going around the room and hearing “Minnesota” after “Minnesota,” minus Nicola’s “California,” Caitlyn’s “Wisconsin,” and my own “Washington.”

In the small time that we have to share with her, Ms. Siebner tells us her story of being a little girl in Nazi occupied Europe. Her story breaks my heart, being one about separation from her father. Arrested for illegally selling books, he disappears for weeks. Only by divorcing him, can his wife save him from imprisonment. And so, she divorces him.

Only secretly can the young Ms. Siebner see her father, and only for short periods of time. Eventually, he emigrates to Shanghai, telling Ms. Siebner before he leaves she should learn English, so that when she comes to China she can live with him.

That is the last time she sees her father. He dies in Shanghai.

We thank Ms. Siebner for her stories, and after taking many a photograph with her big beaming smile, we file back out into the cold and then onto the bus.

It is a shorter day than the others, but just as impactful.

As the sun sets, I am preparing myself for dinner. We are meeting a small group of folks at a charismatic restaurant near Alexanderplatz. From what I understand, the place is called… White Trash Fast Food.

Yes. Indeed.

Thanks for reading, Maxwell Turner, signing off.

Today was our third whole day in Berlin, and also I think the first day this entire trip that we got a chance to sleep in. So after a leisurely morning, a group of us students meet to try and figure out how to get to the Oranienburg [Neue] Synagogue. After the many misadventures in Poland, I think many of us were a bit apprehensive to go on our own, so a group of us planned to meet in the hostel lobby at 12:20, in order to arrive at the synagogue by 1:00. But of course that is not what happened, we managed the subway route just fine, it was when we left the subway station, that we got a bit turned around. We didn’t get as lost as some of the students had in Poland, and still managed to get to the synagogue, a good 30 minutes before our tour started at 2:00.

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The Oranienburg Synagogue itself is incredibly beautiful and ornate, from the outside at least. After the synagogue was partially destroyed in World War II, the back half (where the main prayer hall was located) was torn down, and the front left standing to serve as a memorial. Today the synagogue serves mostly as just a museum and memorial to the Jewish life in Berlin pre-World War II, however there is still a prayer room and services held in the upper levels of the synagogue. The prayer room is new, it was added when the synagogue was partially restored, for unlike many of the other sites related to Jewish life in berlin and Poland, the Oranienburg Synagogue was not completely torn down, nor was it completely restored. This partial restoration, serves as a reminder of what was lost during the Nazi regime.[http://www.cjudaicum.de/en]

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I found the history of the synagogue amazing, and the place itself was pretty spectacular. At the end of the torn we were led up to the dome, from which we had a breathtaking view of the city. After the tour we ended the day at a Vietnamese café [https://www.facebook.com/BABANBE] around the corner from the synagogue, there is nothing like fresh fruit juice and a warm bahn mi to end the day.

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-Nicola

Today started off a little differently than other days so far on the trip; mainly because I’m waking up in Berlin, but also because the bunk bed that I’m sleeping in had me a little disoriented at first by bringing back memories of summer camp when I was younger! Breakfast is one of my favorite parts of being in Europe. There is always an abundance of different food choices and of course (and more importantly) plenty of coffee!

The first thing that we did today after leaving the hostel was experience the Berlin transit system for the first time; which was interesting to say the least. Public transportation is much better here in comparison to many places in the US. We used the U-Bahn (underground train) to get to our destination. After a little balancing practice (with all of the stopping and rocking on the U-Bahn) I think that group had no problems with the train. We met up with a man by the name of Dr. Martin Jander who gave us a tour of Jewish history in Berlin. It was the first time that we were able to get out and really see the city, so it was very cool. Some of the highlights were “Jüdenstrasse” (where the original community of Jewish people in Berlin lived long ago), the spot where the “Alte Synogoge” was located (near the place that one of the few protests against Jewish deportation took place), and seeing the “Neue Synogoge” which was very beautiful. We were surprised to learn that every Jewish institution in Germany has to have intense security and police officers standing guard outside for fear of any anti-Semitic acts; pretty sad.

After the two hour walking tour (which was very cool and very cold) the group grabbed some coffee at a little shop. I think I was able to learn some important German lessons since Kari gave me the inside scoop as to how to meet German men; which is of course very important! Haha. After coffee we went to lunch at a really cool little restaurant called Sophieneck. The food was delicious as usual, and I think the highlight for most of us was being able to try Glühwein (it is a special winter drink consisting usually of red wine, spices and served hot) it was delicious! The recipe is for sure coming home with me. It was also nice to have a little bit of story time with Kari and others during lunch since there is never a shortage of interesting tales within the group.

When we arrived back at the hotel we had a special speaker visit us; his name is Helmut Stern. Mr. Stern is a holocaust survivor and quite the knowledgeable man. His stories were amazing. His family was able to escape Germany (Berlin) before the worst parts of the war/holocaust and forced into exile in a few different countries including China, Israel and the United States. Mr. Stern started playing violin (or fiddle as he liked to call it) when he was quite young and became one of the most accomplished violinists in the last century. He has played with symphonies all over the world. I think that it is impossible for us to fully comprehend what Mr. Stern has gone through and experienced throughout his life. The man knows at least 5 languages fluently, survived WWII/holocaust as a Jew and is still a firecracker at his age of nearly 85 years old! I think that we all had a few good laughs because of his blatant statements and witty attitude. Haha, a few of us were even led into some (what I would call) trap questions posed by Mr. Stern. He had so many stories and so much knowledge that it would take weeks to hear all that he has to tell. I think the most morose part of hearing Mr. Stern speak was him saying that he doesn’t think many people will remember his stories/knowledge. I personally would find his tales hard to forget, but I can see why he might think that the younger generations may take his knowledge for granted. I also found it interesting when he spoke about things that he considered common knowledge. There were quite a few facts that he mentioned that basically no one in our group knew, and Mr. Stern was rather disappointed by it. He said “You will all be surprised by the things that your own children won’t know one day.” I can understand because I’m sure there are many things that I would think everyone should know during these current times, but one day won’t be very important. Overall, it was great listening to Mr. Stern and an honor to have been able to meet such an accomplished and wise human being.

People are still tired and worn out from traveling, so hopefully we will be able to have some more adventurous days ahead of us here in Berlin!

-Hannah

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