After my life changing experience on March of the Living, I decided that I wanted to continue learning about the Holocaust, WWII, and Israel. So I volunteered at the Holocaust Museum in Houston during my summer home from college. I was in charge of organizing the artifacts that people had donated to the museum and cataloging them in their computer database. It felt a bit wrong going through peoples personal items from this tumultuous and somber time. I read letters from loved ones at the camps, saw photos of emaciated prisoners, held whips which were most likely used to harm prisoners, touched Nazi uniforms, and even held a letter that was signed by Adolf Hitler. This experience was often somber and eerie, but also informative and very educational. Most importantly it allowed me to speak with survivors and visitors about my own experience visiting Auschwitz and how crucial it is that we talk about this difficult time in history.
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After being accepted to the trip, I was excited, but also a bit nervous. I knew that I needed to go, if anything to educate myself more, and see how Germans feel about the past, present, and future.
As I touched down in cold, and foggy Berlin, I hopped in a cab headed towards the hotel.
Within the first 5 minutes of the cab ride to my hotel, I saw old buildings, stop signs which say ‘halt’, and barbed wire on these old factories. Each of these things, while might seem normal to most people, evoked emotions which are honestly quite difficult to explain. Sadness, afraid, nervous, anxious, are just a few that come to mind. After settling in at my hotel, I began to explore Berlin. On a side note, A majority of the trip was spent in Berlin, aside from the day trips that we took to Sachsenhausen concentration camp and Halberstadt.
At first I felt a sense of fear, but then as I began to walk farther, it felt like a normal city. It was vibrant, with great shops, food, and a thriving young population who were clearly very hip and modern. I felt like I was in NYC or London. I was shocked. It all felt too normal to me. I actually liked the city. A lot. And it made me feel guilty in a way. I shouldn’t like a place that did this this to my people! But I did.
As the trip progressed, I learned more than I ever could have imagined. We heard from government officials, had panel discussions about immigration and anti-Semitism, visited a mosque, took a tour of Berlin, visited the Berlin wall, went to the Topography of Terror, which was where the former offices of the SS stood, went to the Brandenburg Gate, and a ton of other things, which I am failing to remember at the moment. There were definitely more than a few aha moments for me throughout the trip.
On one of the first days, we went to see the memorials for all of the victims of the Holocaust. There are memorials for the Jews, Sinti (Romani), and homosexuals who were killed, all located in the heart of Berlin.
The homosexual memorial was a big concrete box with a window, and when you peered inside the glass there was a movie of two men making out. In all honesty, I feel that even though this was a memorial for homosexuals who had been murdered during the Holocaust, sadly, it still very representative of today and how homosexuals have to hide who they are and are not always accepted in society, however behind closed doors, or in this case, in the concrete box, they feel as though they can be themselves. I also thought that unfortunately a piece of art work such as this, most likely would not be openly accepted in the U.S. as it is in Europe (this is my personal opinion).
The memorial for the murdered Jews was also quite thought provoking. It is comprised of over 2,000 large cement rectangles. As you walk deeper into the memorial, and the large cement blocks get taller, you begin to feel trapped, and it feels like a maze that you cannot escape. Luscious trees stood on the perimeter of the memorial, which for me, symbolized that outside of this dark and enclosed place (perhaps a concentration camp or even living in a ghetto), there is beauty and life. I thought this piece was particularly interesting because the artist gave no explanation of what these blocks represented and rather left it open to interpretation.
Unfortunately, I didn’t experience the Sinti (Romani) memorial during the day, as it was quite dark and cold when we visited. However, what I could see of the the memorial was incredibly beautiful. It was a small body of water, with a triangle in the middle that had a vase of flowers that stood on top of the triangle. The triangle was symbolic of the badges that the Sinti community wore on their uniforms in the concentration camps. The flowers in the middle of the lake were changed everyday, and if you listened closely, you can hear a violin playing a beautiful piece of music, which was composed by a famous Sinti musician.
While we were walking around the city it is hard not to notice these little gold plaques in the ground all over the city. Each plaque is in a place where someone lived that perished in the Holocaust. There are thousands of them all across Germany. An article about the project can be found here.
While we were out having a drink and walked out of the building, there was a plaque on the wall that said something to the extent of, “this building was a former girls Jewish day school, but it no longer exists due to the fact that they were all murdered during the Holocaust.” In that moment, when we were just out having fun, it was sad and difficult to be reminded of what once was.
Memorials, plaques, and art exhibits serving as a way to remember those who perished during the Holocaust, are all over Germany. It’s VERY important that they are there. But it’s also tough to constantly be reminded of that whether you are a Jew, homosexual, or even just a German.
As you can see, I try to understand both sides of the situation, which often leaves me undecided about how I feel about a place, political issue, or or event a person. Someone on our trip asked the question, “Would you ever consider living in Germany?” I wrote the question down in my journal, and the page is still blank.