Tanya Kovatchka aged 18, year 13
Berlin during the winter period is mostly known for its vibrant Christmas markets where you can find delicious hot chocolate to warm you as you brace yourself against the German weather, but beneath the fairy lights, it is still a city that bears the wounds of its fairly recent past. The only advantage of such fresh painful memories is that Berlin is able to embrace its history like no other city; not shying away from it as Britain may do from its colonial guilt. Instead there are many simple memorials, simple yet incredibly moving. None more so than The Jewish Memorial consisting of 2,711 slabs of concrete which you can walk between. They appear so ordinary yet as soon as you start walking through them you realise the slow dip in the ground and the rising of the slabs so much so that they soon tower above you, enveloping you in the process, just like the slow growth of Nazi power and control. Immediately you start to feel your vulnerability as you stare, head up towards the concrete blocks, all the while keeping the stories of the innocent Jewish victims in your mind.
Being a cold winter evening, it was dark when I walked through the memorial and when I reached the end I was glad it wasn’t day. The darkness had amplified all my feelings, providing the slabs with an aptly sinister sense and the whole memorial a quieter more profound deference.
I am however glad to have been able to see the Sachsenhausen memorial in daylight which was set up in 1993 as part of the Brandenburg Memorials Foundation; it meant I could imagine the thousands of men standing there more clearly. Even without seeing a soul the barrenness of the land made an impact, just like the lack of growth and fertility in the land there had been a total lack in humanity in this place. Efficiency had replaced morality. The camp had been designed in a triangular plan so that guards could easily see prisoners. Some captives attempted suicide via the electric wire that surrounded the camp, but often they were denied dying with dignity and instead shot by the guards watching them in the towers.
Auschwitz is by far the most famous concentration camp, but I felt ashamed not to have realised the thousands that died in Sachsenhausen and the other similar workers’ camps. For though Sachsenhausen is just one camp, many factories were built around it ensuring the free labour was put to use. ‘Racial researchers’ also visited it at which point the Nazis sometimes displayed prisoners who were experimented on in their so-called hospital. Ideas that we take for granted were turned upside down at Sachsenhausen for I was told the place you least wanted to be was indeed the hospital and you were lucky if you worked in the incinerator room, burning the bodies of your fellow prisoners. Why? Simply because it meant you were in the warmth and were provided with a little alcohol to ease the duty.
Before I came to Berlin, I felt I knew quite a lot about Germany under the Nazi era, having studied it for GCSE, but the course had omitted detailed study about the concentration camps, perhaps because they were too sensitive a topic. It meant I was shocked by my own lack of knowledge when visiting Sachsenhausen or Wannsee. The house of the Wannsee conference is a beautiful villa nestled between charming trees, yet it was at this idyllic scene that high ranking Nazis met and decided upon the final solution. Now an education and memorial site, its detailed exhibition took me through the escalation of Nazi violence through to the various concentration camps and how different Nazi allies dealt with their Jewish populations. Simple documents shocked me such as a table showing the numbers of Jews present in each country. For example, under Estonia it simply said free of Jews.
What makes Berlin unique though is that it is a city that not only had to go through the horrors of the Nazi regime, but it was also literally torn in two during the Cold War. Being brought up in the 21st century meant that my mind has always found it hard to grapple with the fact that my parents and my teachers were all alive during the wall’s existence and remember what they were doing at the time of its collapse in 1989. Naively I simply thought it was one wall, I had no idea about the death strip. With stories of miraculous escapes such as a man carrying his girlfriend in his suitcase across, it can be easy to forget the extent of the danger. My tour guide was keen to emphasise that most escapes took place just after the erection of the wall before the Stasi had a chance to tighten control. I always found it ironic that it was Khrushchev, regarded as one of Russia’s more reformist leaders, that built such a symbol of divide.
The other stark reminder of the Cold War is the TV Tower that still dominates Berlin’s skyline to this day. Now no longer a centre for spying, but instead a classy restaurant with a jazzy soundtrack that accompanies the spectacular view. Though Berlin has undoubtedly moved on from its past, the markers of its history remain, lest they should ever forget it.