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Berlin: City of Contrasts

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Somehow I failed to mention the early start I was forced to have on my first morning in Berlin. I was woken from a sound sleep at about 5:30 by the presence of two policemen in the room. One of the guys had his laptop stolen, from behind three locked doors, so naturally the most logical possibility was that one of us in the room had taken it. So we all had our stuff examined fairly thoroughly - it didn't seem to trouble the cops that bags smaller than laptops could not hold a laptop - they still got searched. I was a bit concerned about my own laptop - I hadn't left it out like the fellow who lost his, but was still relieved to find it.

I'd have been very happy to spend my whole week in Berlin at the Grand Hostel, even with that incident, but in the interests of seeing different bits had booked a night in a hotel in the very poshest part of Berlin, Charlottenberg, which is out to the West. The main street through this area, Kurfürstendamm, is Berlin's answer to the Champs-Élysées: block after block of high-end brand shopping, venerable hotels like the Kempinski, exotic car dealerships and the largest department store in Europe, the KaDeWe. Kurfürstendamm itself has had a checkered history as it had been where many Jewish businesses were established, and then it took numerous hits during the war. I read somewhere that when the Wall was (accidentally, it turns out) opened, Kurfürstendamm was one of the main thoroughfares used by those coming from the East. It wasn't until I was in Berlin that I ever heard about the accidental opening: the Government planned to open it, but hadn't quite decided when. Some minion was put on TV to announce the plan and when he was asked what the time frame was, he shuffled through his papers, mumbled a bit and announced "now"! Guards on a couple of the gates packed up and went home and the wall was history.

Although I was staying in a posh area, I couldn't really justify the cost of the Kempinski or any of the other nice hotels in the area - I found a cheap room in the Pensione Hotel Funk, on a side street, opposite the grandly named Berlin Literaturhaus, which turned out to be a cafe, not a fancy library. I'm not saying that my room was small, but I had to rent a separate room for my luggage. It was a pleasant enough place to stay, and I liked the honesty system with the beer - it was kept in the fridge with a notepad beside it for guests to indicate their purchases. The outside looked like this
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I wandered the streets, found a stationery shop that actually sells writing paper (impossible to find in any of the Scandinavian cities, even in Office-Max type stores): I resisted the temptation to buy any pens, but was not so resistant to ink and made the first of a couple of visits to KaDeWe (where the pens were somehow more tempting, and besides, I'd just bought ink - surely something was needed to put it in). The top floor is entirely given over to food and drink and was awash with people, so I had a quick beer and departed. It was quite dark, so my one photo of Kurfürstendamm is not very revealing.
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I was near the Tiergarten, the second biggest urban garden or park in Germany, so popped over in the morning to check it out - pretty wintry, with more trees than actual garden. It is bisected by roads which intersect at the Victory Column, which marks the 19th century Prussian victories that created a unified Germany. It is 67 metres high, above which sits "Golden Lizzie" (Goldelse) although it is actually Victoria, the Roman Goddess of Victory, not the British monarch. All the way round the base, various friezes depict some of the battles. There was a nice wee restaurant in the park, very busy, where I had a hearty sausage and bean stew to keep me going.
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Every time I walked past the Kaiser-Wilhelm Memorial Church, it puzzled me, as I could see that it was obviously broken (it took quite a beating during the war, and really it is just the spire left), but seemed to still be in use. Someone I spoke to said that when they built a new church around it, there were plans to pull down the spire, but the congregation and the general public wants it kept the way it is, as a way of respecting the Kaiser. It is right in the middle of a bunch of new buildings so I could not get far away enough to get a decent photo. I was amused by the juxtaposition with a nearby building in a completely different style.
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Berlin has many things for the tourist to see and do, and there was no way I could have seen them all had I wanted to, but I found two things that I really wanted to see. One was these rather innocuous buildings
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During the war, the top one was used as a kitchen and canteen, the second was purpose built a little bit later - they are Berlin-Hohenschönhausen prison. After the war, the Russians had control of this part of Berlin and, obviously, needed somewhere they could house and deal with political prisoners. So the basement of the top building was converted to small, bare concrete cells - no window, no real access to air, a single small light that would be turned on at random times to create the idea it was day-time, no bedding, no toilet - which would house dozens of people. They called it the U-Boot, or submarine. The Russians were pretty indiscriminate as to who they'd imprison and where they'd put them - so there were old people, young people, men, women, people of all political stripes all housed in the same room. The average time people spent here was 6 months, but one fellow was here for 28 months. The youngest was 4 years old; one girl of 14 was put in because, being a teenager, she thought it would be funny to put lipstick on a photo of a man - who turned out to be Stalin. She had no idea. They were all tried before a court, but the court was in Russia, while they stayed in the submarine and had no idea what was happening. A common charge seems to have been endangering world peace. A lot of work as been done to find these people and ask about their experiences - obviously horrible, but the surprising thing was the way they'd group, despite their differences. There was no subtlety to the way they were treated, or interrogated/beaten to get the "truth" out of them. There is probably no need for a photo of a small, square concrete cell.
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The Soviets used this from 1946 - 1951, when the East German authorities took over and built the lower building. Their strategy was completely different - the inside didn't look worse than many hostels I've stayed in, and they abandoned all forms of physical abuse as counter-productive as the results produced could not be trusted as the truth.
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The inmates were questioned in somewhat normal looking offices - hundreds of them - and a psychological approach was used, mainly based on rewards - promises of nice things for family members for co-operation, for example. It remained a prison until after the Wall came down - the last inmates were released three weeks later, and no-one told them. The surrounding housing was all occupied by friendlies - prison guards, employees of the secret service, soldiers and so on - and the whole place was off the map completely, just didn't exist. People were brought in in vehicles like this one
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Some of the guards still live in the neighbourhood, as do some of the former inmates - so they encounter each other in the streets. Some of the guards go on the tours through Berlin-Hohenschönhausen and have a rather different view of matters. I read of one blogger who went through, a young woman from Russia was on the same tour and couldn't accept what she was being told.

All in all, while there was very little to see, apart from the masses of offices still as they were left and a few cells still set up in the modern version of the prison, I was very glad to have done this. For something just a little different, that evening I went to the KaDeWe for a good look round. It was much quieter than my earlier visit, so I was able to sit down for a meal - I'll just finish with some photos - nothing needs to be said, really, except that the lamb chops I had for dinner were from New Zealand.
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Posted by NZBarry 16:29 Archived in Germany

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I love Berlin! Looks like you saw a lot more of it then I did. Did you visit the holocaust memorial? I would love to go back for a longer visit.

by Katie Clendaniel

I reckon I only saw fragments, Katie, and definitely hope to get back there myself (I have just found a list of the best cafes there and didn't go to any of them!).

by NZBarry

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