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Sensation of History

July 7, 2010

Without a doubt one of my favorite parts about Berlin was the total sensory stimulation that the history of the city alone immerses you in, particularly because its past is so significant and the scene is so unique; I never could have imagined coming across the vast array of experiences that I had the opportunity to while visiting this incredible place. For me, it was never all about one perception at a time; there was a constant influx of sensory provocation I was compelled to participate in. Unquestionably the historical architecture of Berlin is some of the most captivating I have ever had the opportunity to see; from the statuesque churches to the ominous post-war creations of the GDR, each and every scene that I visually absorbed was uniquely extraordinary. The memorials that have been erected to pay homage to the past are also quite exceptional in their own right; the ability of the respective architects of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and the Garden of Exile at the Jewish Museum Berlin to atone reverence upon people whom such severe atrocities have been committed against is no easy feat.

Beyond visually discernible sites, I began to associate elements of Berlin’s history not only by sight but also by certain stimuli to other senses. Upon first walking into one of the menacing and immense Stasi record storage basements at the BStU, my sense of smell was exposed to a furtive and musty aroma intertwined with the haunting scent of burnt material, which was contextually equally as provoking as my visual interpretation of the site. In addition to engaging that particular sense in this now reminiscent way, on our tour we were able to physically examine and handle actual records that the Stasi kept about citizens of East Berlin. Simply knowing what information these pieces of paper contained and the implication they carried made them feel unbelievably and profoundly heavy. I was progressively being made more and more aware of the explicit role that these sites either played in the making or remembrance of the history of Berlin over the past century and being in their presence and paying homage to their significance made the concrete sensory experience overwhelmingly powerful and moving.

Because I was able to tangibly and sensually experience the history of Berlin in such an exceptional way, I also came to the realization that my own perceptions went far beyond the typical physical connotation of what “sensory captivation” entails. As I became more and more acquainted with the corporeal aesthetic of the history of Berlin I began to increasingly detect an intangible and much more humanistic phenomenon; the experiences I perceived physically were also incurring a deeper psychological reaction I hadn’t initially expected. I found this to be particularly true in renowned sites of either resistance or suffering and unusually so at locations where history has fortuitously marched on with impudence such that people simply no longer have a direct connection with historical events that occurred there.

This sixth sense, per se, of impalpable history first struck me when we arrived at Brandenburger Tor. I learned that while this monument is now considered to be one of Germany’s most famous and widely recognized landmarks, it is also the sole remaining gate that, at one time, individuals had to use in order to gain access to and enter Berlin. While on the surface this was an objective piece of knowledge I was able to absorb and maintain, it quickly dawned on me that there were critical elements to this synopsis that I would never truly be able to concretely grasp. I was standing beneath this majestic yet formidable crux of Berlin history and the only personal information I had in regards to it felt shallow and detached; standing there, I could sense the impregnable legacy that this monument radiated yet my comprehension of that legacy was no better than every single other individual person who complacently took for granted the fact that they could stroll back and forth underneath those gaping arches that were once an integral part of preventing East German citizens from exercising their own free will to do so; in this way did visiting the Brandenburger Tor not only give me a deeper sense of my own lack of direct connection to humanistically significant periods of history but it also pushed my cognizance of the personification and sensation of the history of Berlin much deeper than it had been before.

Of all of the historical sites that we visited while in Berlin, one that I found to be particularly poignant was Otto Weidt’s Workshop for the Blind Museum. As the Third Reich continued to gain power throughout the 1930s and into the 1940s, it became increasingly difficult not only for Jewish individuals and their families to survive the oppression unleashed upon them but it also became nearly impossible for other citizens to aid Jewish people in any way without also endangering themselves and their own families. We learned that Otto Weidt, a blind man residing in Berlin who was a vehement opponent to National Socialism and the Nazi regime, was a remarkable exception to this norm; not only did he shelter Jews in his brush-making workshop but the majority of his employees were blind or deaf Jewish citizens. Even more extraordinary was that Weidt was willing to falsify documents and regularly bribe the Gestapo in order to secure freedom for Jews that had been taken. Walking up the winding staircase into what is left of the original workshop I felt a sense of calm flood over me, as if i had inadvertently unearthed some sort of sanctuary. While being led around the small area that comprised Weidt’s workshop I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply, imagining my fingers running along the faded, warped walls and allowing the knowledge of who this man was and what he had done full knowing the risk of personal peril to sink in to my conscience. I reveled in the thought of all the lives he had saved or changed simply because he believed that the oppression and genocide that was occurring was undeniably and unquestionably wrong and I came to a conclusion I have reached on other occasions when faced with similar stories of seemingly indestructible tenacity: there is no better reason. For whatever reason, rather than drowning myself in the bleak and cynical reality of injustices committed throughout history as I am generally all too ready to do, I felt deeply moved, as if Otto Weidt had somehow been able to tap into my moral sense and instill in me a calm awareness of the impact one individual can have on others regardless of the context or number. Walking into the final room of the tour we were shown the small, dark, hidden room that Weidt used to hide Jews from the Gestapo and I was astonished at the flood of senses I experienced. Initial fear and sadness for those who had been forced to use the space for its intended purpose faded into awe at their solidarity and unspoken and steadfast commitment to the part that each individual played in ensuring each other’s safety. This truly humanistic phenomenon became Otto Weidt’s profoundly moving legacy. As I left the workshop thinking about all of those who had exited before me, I felt a newfound sense and awareness that in order to justify having faith in my own set of beliefs in regards to what is truly right and wrong I must first convey these values through my actions. If I am unwilling or unable to do so my own set of beliefs is to be rendered null and void.

Spending time in Berlin and learning first-hand the incredible yet tragic history of such a remarkable city was one of the most provocative and amazing experiences I have ever had the opportunity to enjoy. The images will forevermore be engrained in my own personal memory, the lessons within the lessons will never be forgotten. The humanistic element to history has enabled me to feel and sense so much more by way of relating myself to the past than simple facts have ever had the capability of doing. The most important lessons to be taken away from history come from the human experience and progression towards recognizing that we all have the power to change it.

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Paradox of memory and history

July 6, 2010

Berlin is a city teeming with a unique sense of history, one that represents the whole continuum of the human experience. One of the most intriguing elements of the essence of the representation of Berlin’s history lies in the subtle paradoxes that are an underlying aspect to many of the memorials and historical sites throughout the city. These contradictory sentiments are found in the nature of the objective history of Berlin as well as in the memorials themselves, entrenched in everything from the methodology employed by the Nazi regime to particular details gathered at the concentration camp Sachsenhausen, the Stasi prison Hohenschönhausen and at historical sites such as Zionskirche. The first place this paradox presented itself was seen while visiting Potsdamer Platz. There is a section of the Berlin Wall that stands in the center that is surrounded by present-day evidence of a vastly different society than that of which the Wall itself divided. This small piece of a monumental part of Berlin’s history stands enveloped by billboards and advertisments that scream capitalism and private financial enterprise, which was a reality that only citizens residing in West Berlin experienced during the time when the Wall stood.

Another example of paradoxical sentiments experienced occurred while visiting  Sachsenhausen, the Nazi concentration camp used primarily for political prisoners. While walking around, listening to the guide and reading about the tragic lives prisoners there led, an overwhelming feeling of haunting serenity flooded my consciousness. From the image of the phrase “Arbeit Macht Frei” (itself a sickly ironic contradiction meaning “Work Will Set You Free”) to the small yet ethereal white flowers that have sprouted all along the lethal electric fence that stood as the internal security perimeter, these small images somehow reminded me of the horrors that individuals experienced on the very ground on which I was standing.

Apart from these physical signs of disparity between the role of the site and the present-day memorial, there were ideas communicated in regards to the behavior of the imprisoned as well as the imprisoners that pulled me in several directions all at once. The first of which was something I read while in one of the museum sites at Sachensenhousen. The little placard resting next to a crude handmade broom stated that the broom had been made by prisoners so that they could maintain a level of cleanliness in their meager accomodations. The revelation that these individuals had the willpower and tenacity to, even in the most dire of living situations, create a shred of higher quality of life and personal comfort and satisfaction for themselves was utterly beyond my imaginative capacity. Along these lines as well was how the humiliation, shame and torture that the incarcerators bestowed upon the prisoners in order to instill fear and cooperation also seems to have led to a higher sense of camaraderie and solidarity among the prisoners; when the guards would kill a fellow prisoner and would force the others to walk past the body of their compatriot to make an example of them, those who remained saw this as a way to say goodbye. Upon leaving Sachensenhousen I felt the weight of tragedy and sadness upon my consciousness yet was also astonished at how much more there was to the human story of this haunted place.

Berlin has a particular sense of forlorn aesthetic surrounding much of its historical architecture. This decrepit beauty was another example of the contradictory nature I experienced while spending time there. From the old churches, some even surviving World War II, to the remnants of the architectural creations of the GDR, there was an enigmatic charisma that existed in each place we visited. The best example of this was undoubtedly Zionskirche, a church that has survived for one of the most tumultuous centuries in German history in the heart of East Berlin. Remaining statuesque through multiple wars, horrendous burglary and theft, Zionskirche has emerged as a center for peace and environmental justice in the city of Berlin. It was a place we went to where I felt a unique sense of calm strength while standing in awe of the beautiful austerity of the architectural design.

 One of the fundamental paradoxes of this entire experience I found in learning about the manner in which the Nazi regime and the Stasi attempted to implement and maintain their respective ideologies. The most primordial of which for me was the notion of humane inhumanity; an example of this was told to us by the guide at Sachsenhousen in regards to the execution of prisoners. Bringing them into a room and staging an examination, through a hole in the wall soldiers would shoot and execute individuals, one after another. The effort that perpetrators of murder and espionage went through was simply shocking, particularly when considering what the end goal eventually was. Under this broad notion of humane inhumanity, an additional beahvioral paradox committed by those in power was that of systematic terror and the irrational rationality that those in power demonstrated. Terror is an emotion with no boundaries, limits or control and the systematic implementation of this sensation is something I cannot imagine witnessing, experiencing or perpetrating. Finally, the irrational rationality of the way that the Nazis and the Stasi administered their ideologies involves a deeply rooted ability to manipulate and dehumanize that goes far beyond my cognitive understanding of all of us who exist in the world today that it left me dumbfounded; I am still questioning how it is that humans could commit these acts of torture and murder and espionage against other humans.

While Berlin was full of perplexing contradictions, I did come out of the experience understanding that these paradoxes were and are how individuals survive through difficult times. In the small beauties, new life and unquestionable awareness, citizens of Berlin and the world are learning how to resist oppression and come to terms with the past.