Germany (Berlin in particular) is a place I’ve always dreamt of visiting. Fascinated by WWII history I was anxious to get my feet on the ground of where history was made and to see the sights I’d only read about. This experience was more than I ever thought it would be.
My little brother, Ben and I flew to Berlin via London Heathrow. Upon this writing, it’s been awhile but I believe we flew via Air Lingus which is a discount European airline. In any case, it took us to Berlin Schonefeld Airport which is well outside the city center. Some might be put off by the fact you have to then take a train into the city of Berlin, however that train ride was one of the most beautiful I’ve been on in my life. It takes you through the twists and turns of the countryside and gives you a completely unique perspective of Berlin and it’s surroundings. We arrived into the train station with our backpacks and a map of how to get to our hostel and were equally impressed with how beautiful the train station was. It was made of all brick with gorgeous clear glass walls and ceilings. After years spent riding the NYC subway, this was an absolutely spectacular sight for their mass transit system.
We studied the metro system map and found the line we needed to get to our hostel. My first impression was that everything (sights, sounds, smells, words) all appeared very German. (Shocking, right?) You don’t really notice these things until you are well outside the comfort of your own country and it’s unique customs. Ben and I had a good laugh as we tried to pronounce a few of the metro stops along the way, because neither of us speak a lick of German, we were constantly having to check our train map – using the way things were spelled instead of how they sounded. We arrived at our hostel, only a few blocks away from the metro station and were both surprised with how open and clean the rooms were. Since this was home for the next 5 days, we were happy to see it and make ourselves comfortable. We introduced ourselves to the other travelers staying in our room and exchanged stories of where we were all from and what we had already seen in Berlin.
I’m not one to really plan out a vacation – with the exception of purchasing plane tickets and a place to stay – I like to keep my options open and get a feel for the place once we get there to decide what to do. Germany was my exception to that rule, as I made definitive plans to go see Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp in Oranienburg. This was about an hour train ride outside of Berlin and it was the one thing I wanted to make sure to see while there. We got settled into our hostel, grabbed a quick bite and then headed back to the train station where we caught a train headed North. An hour later the conductor was calling the stop for Sachsenhausen so we hopped off and followed the crowd of people also headed there. It’s probably a mile walk or so from the train station to the entrance of the concentration camp and you walk through this little town of Oranienburg; weaving up and down streets filled with homes built decades and centuries ago, small tourists stands erected in order to take advantage of those walking the streets in search of this incredibly sad part of history, up and down cobble stone roads – until you reach this larger than life concrete gate of sorts with the word Sachsenhausen spread across it.
During this mile walk to the camp you have some time to more or less prepare yourself for what you’re about to see, but I can tell you first hand – there is just no preparing yourself for the feelings that was over you upon seeing this for the first time. The flood of emotion and images that conjour up in your head, thinking about the horrors that took place on the very ground I was standing.. it was just terrible. But incredible at the same time.
We purchased our entrance tickets, along with an English translated headset and began our walk down the gravel road, barbed wire & electric fences to our left – where hundreds of thousands had walked previously during a trip the Nazi’s referred to as “the death march.” We came upon a guards house on the right hand side before turning into the gate and getting our first view of what had been the last view for so many.
As we walked through the grounds and eventually through an iron gate with the words “ARBEIT MACHT FREI” which translates to “work will set you free”, it becomes impossible to hold back tears. I wept for all of the lives lost here, for all of the impossible tasks imposed on the people sent to this “work camp”, for all of the medical experiments endured, the families torn apart, for what could have been for so many people. It was devastating.
I walked through the grounds, listening to the stories being told on my headset: the medical experiments practiced on twins in buildings A & B, the homosexuals & other ‘social deviants’ who were housed in separate prisoners barracks, the gas chambers still intact & quite visible, the firing line which was right in front of a stack of wooden logs, morning role call and how the prisoners were required to drag out the bodies of anyone who had died the night before to morning roll call so they would still be accounted for… the list goes on and on of mind blowing stories and visual reminders of what this camp used to be.
Since I visited Sachsenhausen on my first full day in Germany, I was already nice and depressed so decided it wouldn’t be horrible to go visit the other WWII historical hot spots in Berlin. Over the next few days, I visited Checkpoint Charlie, the holocaust memorial, Adolf Hitler’s bunker, The Berlin Wall (the portions which are left of it), Brandenburg Gate and numerous other tourist/historian destinations. Besides being absolutely devastating to think about the horrors which took place here, I absolutely loved the city of Berlin. It was everything and nothing at all of what I expected it to be.