We caught a train to take us from Warsaw to Berlin. We were in the first class carriages, but as Pete said, “If that’s first class I’d hate to be in economy”. I can’t say it was a train journey to remember, just a track through Eastern Europe on an overcast and drizzly day, stopping now and then at a station. Once again, Tomas had suggested bringing along some food, since there might be a restaurant car – and then again, maybe there might not. As it happened, there was a a restaurant car, and the service did provide coffee and a cake. You could buy beer and wine, and food, but we were happy with our roll. It’s a long trip – most of a day, which I spent reading, or playing solitaire. But, since this trip was a series of unfortunate events, I wasn’t really surprised when something went wrong.
Tomas was at pains to tell us we shouldn’t get off the train at the first Berlin station (Berlin East). We would be going on to the central station. However, it seemed we’d arrived just after tropical storm Xavier (the remains of a hurricane that had hit the Caribbean a week or two ago) had cut a swathe through Berlin. We’d noticed the tops of trees whipping around in the wind, but it had been much worse. Trees were down, power lines were cut, and the normally reliable rail service in the city was in chaos. We couldn’t get to central. So we all hopped off the train and mooched around the railway station while Tomas organised a bus to take us to the hotel.
If you’ve travelled much in Europe, you’ll know most hotel rooms are tiny compared with Australia. That wasn’t true in Eastern Europe, where I think the hotels are more recent. That’s especially true in Berlin, which was flattened in the war, and the Eastern parts stayed in a pretty parlous state until after reunification in the nineties. Our room was almost a suite, with enough room to host a party, and a splendiferous bathroom. The down side was that the cost of a shot of Scotch was in keeping with the surroundings – we bought a bottle at a supermarket for about the same money.
By this time we were both tired and ill from constant coughing and lack of sleep. The bark was so bad we could have hired out our services to a security firm. I was sneezing a lot, too. This was not flu – no aches and pains and fever, but even so, we had an eye on the long haul flight back to Oz in a few days’ time, so we asked to see a doctor. He arrived in due course, and prescribed a decongestant during the day and pills to reduce the coughing at night. So off we went to find an apothecary. In fact, we had to do that twice. The first time the assistant gave us smaller packages with not enough pills to cover the doses, and (of course) we didn’t notice until we sat down for coffee (which was at least good coffee). Back to the pharmacy. The pharmacist apologised, and said they didn’t have the items we needed, but she could have them in by 3pm.
Since it’s warm and dry in shopping malls, we stayed there for some time, and pinpointed a couple of places to buy lunch, and dinner. We noticed a big food item in Berlin was ‘sausage with curry sauce’. I’m partial to sausage, but not with curry sauce, so I asked if it came without the sauce. I was told it wasn’t a good idea, because the sausages weren’t very nice. Like the coffee in Slovakia, this was a cold war leftover. You hide the horrible sausage with curry sauce, and now it has become a Berlin staple. The waiter did tell us where we could get good sausage, though, at a nearby restaurant. So we had dinner there.
Once again we missed the city tour which had taken in Checkpoint Charlie, the remnants of the wall, and the Brandenburg gate, but the next day we passed all those places on the way to the leafy suburb of Potsdam, so at least we got to see them from the bus. We also got to see the extensive damage from storm Xavier, with trees down in many places. Well-heeled Berliners live in Potsdam and around the Wannsee. So did the aristocracy in the past, and there are a number of palaces. One of the best known is Frederik II’s (the Great) bijou palace, Sans Souci. It’s quite small, but elaborately decorated. Frederik loved the place, and wanted to be buried there. That request was not honoured – until 1991, when his remains were interred in the crypt Frederik had prepared. (You can find the story here – it’s short) He was a fascinating man, a King of Prussia who came close to uniting Germany before Bismarck finished the job in 1870, a scholar and a soldier, and very likely gay. It’s well worth reading a little about him. Oh, by the way, no photos allowed inside the palace. But you probably worked that out. The tour was conducted with precision, with groups waiting until the previous group had left a room before being ushered through.
After our visit to the palace we went to Potsdam, a nice little village with cobble stoned streets and old houses, where you could buy a sausage-in-a-bun with mustard. Then it was back to Berlin.
As the Holocaust featured so much for me on this tour, I have to say something about Berlin’s holocaust memorial. We drove past it in the bus, and Pete took the picture with his tablet. There’s no immediate recognition of what this thing is – it looks like a collection of packing cases, or shipping containers, arranged in lines over several acres – 4.7 of them, as it happens. “What’s that?” I asked.
“The Holocaust memorial,” the guide said. “Kids use it to jump around and take selfies.”
I was seriously unimpressed. To me, the place is unrecognisable as a memorial, certainly not from this angle. It seems I’m not the only one who was underwhelmed, as evidenced in this article in the New Yorker. The author says what I think, only better, and I urge you to read it. As I mentioned in my post on Auschwitz, people of my generation know about the Holocaust. The challenge is to make the next generations understand. This monument isn’t helping at all. Yes, kids take selfies there. The particularly disturbing aspect of those selfies is that the kids tag them as ‘jumping on dead Jews’ or similar. That means they have at least a rudimentary knowledge of what those blocks represent. Not enough is being done to ensure they understand the reality.
Literally tons of overwhelming evidence – documents, designs for the gas chambers, eye witness accounts from such people as Eisenhower and Patton as well as survivors, photographs taken in secret, and photographs taken proudly by the SS – attests to the fact that the Nazi regime deliberately set about exterminating the Jews. Despite that, there are Holocaust deniers, people who suggest that the whole thing was a conspiracy by the Allies to demonize the German people. Let me direct you to Snopes, where denial of the Holocaust is examined.
I’ll finish this post with one small observation. The Nazis killed about 6 million Jews, but they deliberately targeted many other groups – homosexuals, gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, people with intellectual disabilities – as listed in this article from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum site. If you require context to absorb those figures, in 1938 the population of Australia was about 6.8 million people. The Nazi regime deliberately murdered many more than the whole population of Australia at that time.
And here, dear reader, I will leave behind talk of the Holocaust. From Berlin we travelled to Prague, and from there home. But before we left Europe there was one last unfortunate event. That’s for next time.