Berlin 2009 – Day 7 – Wed 11th Nov

1 12 2009

The last full day in Berlin – where had the time gone?  Lots of the photography students, and all of the 2nd year Graphics students had gone to visit the Bauhaus in Dessau.  Originally the visit had been planned for the Sunday and I would have gone if that had continued to be the case, but I really wanted to spend my last day actually in Berlin.

Tram at Alexanderplatz

Alice, Alberto and I headed east to meet our fellow student, Maria, who is from Berlin and was home visiting her family while we were there.  From Alexanderplatz we took the tram (first time I’ve ever been on one) to Genslerstraße where Maria was waiting for us.  We were going to visit the Gedenkstätte prison which is now a museum.

The website had indicated that there was a tour in English available at noon but when we arrived Maria discovered that this was not the case and that we would have to wait until 2pm.  We decided that we would join the German language tour at noon and that Maria would explain to us what the guide was saying.

This prison had not appeared on any maps while it was in operation and nobody knew it was there.  Prisoners were brought in blindfolded and by very circuitous routes.  All the tour guides at the prison are what are known as ‘eyewitnesses’ – they had all been imprisoned during the communist regime, though not all at this particular prison.  Our guide was very dour and serious.  I appreciated that his story was not a cheerful one, but even without understanding the words he was saying, I could tell he wasn’t very engaging.  Maria agreed.

"Chinese" Water Torture - no evidence that it originated in China

We were shown various cells along the first corridor.  The guide explained how people were placed in the rooms which were then flooded, or how various other methods of torture were carried out, such as ‘Chinese’ water torture.  The photo on the right is of a mock-up of the apparatus used in that prison.  Water is dripped onto the prisoner’s head for hours on end.  the guide told us that this form of torture (and others) continues in other parts of the world and that Amnesty International are continually working to stop this illegal activity.  He said that its continuing practice in Turkey is preventing that country from being allowed into the European Union.  It is easy to hear these things via television or in newspapers, and to appreciate that such acts are terrible, yet on an intellectual level.  Seeing these cells and the buckets, etc made it seem a little more real, but I don’t think any of us can begin to imagine what horrors people have suffered at the hands of others.  We have overused words such as ‘horrific’ and ‘dreadful’ and lost their meanings.

Alice, Maria and I admire the 1970s floor covering

One thing that struck me was some of the decor.  On another floor we were shown office after office along a corridor – each almost identical to the other.  These were ‘writing rooms’ and officers would interview/interrogate prisoners and non-prisoners here.  They would write down everything possible about the person, thereby totally removing any privacy or (in some cases) sense of self from them.  Another form of torture and an effective means of control.  Within these rooms, vacant for around 20 years, were desks, cabinets and chairs – very simple furniture.  However, the chair fabric, the curtains and the wallpapers were so typical of the 1970s style that I remember from my childhood that they seemed benign even in this setting.  The linoelum floors had a similar effect.  They appeared to me to be incongruous.  I was surprised that the same fashions had prevailed in the Eastern Bloc – simply because I had always been led to believe that beyond the Iron Curtain, life was so very different from our own lives in the West.  I knew, of course, that the ordinary people there were the same as ordinary people everywhere, but for some reason the notion of ‘fashion’ didn’t fit the concept of isolation from the West that we had been taught about in school.  Although I suppose that these 1970s style furnishings would have been very dated to us by 1989 – perhaps not so vividly to those who did not care about them, and who only wanted their freedom.  My thoughts felt utterly trivial.

Cell after cell after cell

Much of the tour was spent standing and listening in this cell or that.  We wandered along the corridors finding empty cells to photograph and in some of them were information boards with English descriptions that we were able to read for ourselves.  I was becoming restless standing and listening to a language I couldn’t understand (and I might have been a little restless even if it had been in English, so monotonous was the guide’s delivery), so this was a welcome diversion.  As we looked around and discussed things amongst ourselves, Maria told us part of her mother’s story during the time when the Berlin Wall was still standing and what daily life had been like for her.  Maria was three years old when the wall fell, but it was obvious, not only from her stories but also from other things we had learned that week, that its effects still haunt the city.  All I could do was listen – none of us have any words for these things we can’t hope to understand, and what is sadder than anything is that the world still has not learned from this or any other tragedy.  We still let it happen.

Eastgate shopping centre - the largest in the east.

The only remedy for such sobering thoughts was lunch and a little retail therapy.  We jumped on another tram and went out to the huge Eastgate shopping centre.  We had lunch in the big food hall – Pizza Hut was like a magnet to me – and watched the shoppers while we chatted for a while about Berlin, our course, and everything else.  Lots of the shops in the centre we recognised, and those that we didn’t looked much like the various chain stores we have at home.  And as at home, Christmas had come early – the shops and the whole mall were festooned with decorations and seasonal items in the windows.  You just can’t get away from it.  I gave in and photographed the massive tree in the centre but vowed not to post it anywhere until December.  Humbug.

Soon it was time for us to leave Maria and head back to the hotel.  It had been a very tiring day but I’m so glad we went there.  We can only ever skim the surface of history but that is better than burying it and pretending things didn’t happen.  We must never forget.

Kurt W Hamann and Stephen Bull at Vapiano, Potsdamer Platz

After a short nap, Alice, Alberto and I joined Stuart, Sam and Martin for one last trip to Vapiano to sample yet another variety of pasta dish – again at the Potsdamer Platz restaurant.  As we finished our meal and prepared to leave, Daniel and Stephen (photography tutors) emerged from upstairs and on our way out Stephen got chatting to a guy sat near the door.  He was Kurt W Hamann – a photographer.  He’d been at Potsdamer Platz the night they had removed the first section of the Berlin Wall on 11th Novemeber 1989, and photographed events.  Since then he has taken photographs on 11th November every night for 20 years (including this night).  He had some of his photographs with him – he plans to publish a book.

And so ended the final full day of our visit to Berlin – half an hour in the hotel restaurant chatting about our days and then bed.

Christmas tree at the Eastgate shopping centre


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