15 Hours Non-stop in Berlin (Day 4)
A big (big) day - everyday life in the DDR, the Wall, the Jewish Museum, the perils of life in Berlin during the war, and one last concert. Tricky dressing for a day on the go and a night at the symphony!
My day started in Prenzlauer-Berg, which is where my hotel was located, and though I’d already spent four nights and three full days in Berlin, I’d not yet really explored this lovely little pocket of Berlin a stone’s throw from Alexanderplatz (two stops on the tram to be precise).
The Ackselhaus Hotel is not your typical hotel - I suspect the building belongs to a family named Acksel, (some of whom still live in various of its appartments judging by the names on the letterboxes). While some apartments are, presumably, just that, others are now hotels rooms. Mine was a very generous room with a very spacious ensuite… so spacious it had a TV so you could watch your favourite US program dubbed in German from the clawfoot tub (assuming you had time for such luxuries). The reception (more like a comfy parlour with its French windows opening onto Belforter Straße) isn’t managed all day, every day, and they only service the rooms on request (which suited me). Nor is the any food on offer (which also suited me). But I had a bar fridge and a coffee machine in my room, a with little supermarket 20 meters from the front door of the building, and my request for a plate and cutlery fulfilled with a smile in a heartbeat, I was set.
On to the Wall, with a bit of history to set the scene. As I’m sure everyone knows, following the war the city of Berlin was split into sectors controlled by four different powers - the Russians, Americans, British and French. Indeed, the whole country was so divided. However, what I didn’t fully appreciate until this trip is that the entire city of Berlin was located in the Russian-controlled sector of German - in other words, the city of Berlin was in the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR), as were a number of cities west of Berlin (like Leipzig). The DDR, or more familiarly East Germany, existed between 1949 and 1990.
Prior to the Wall going up, there was plenty of movement between East and West - some lived in the East and worked in the West (like one of the first Wall victims), others lived in the West and literally crossed the road to go to church in the East. Around one sixth of the population moved from East to West Berlin before the Wall, from where they could freely access (read escape to) those parts of the country controlled by the French, British or Americans.
The Russians got a bit jack of this and in the dead of night on 13 August 1961, they laid barbed wire around the entire city of Berlin not under their control - so the Wall didn’t run through Berlin (as I imagined it did), it ran around the three western controlled sectors of Berlin all neatly next to one another. And the Russians did so without a word of warning - Berliners went to bed one Saturday night and woke up locked in (or out) of East Berlin the following morning. The barbed wire in and of itself would not have stopped a determined escapee, but the armed soldiers (and later the attack dogs trained to go for the throat) would, and did.
At least 136 people died at the Wall (including a couple of children) - the number differs depending on the source but whatever the number it is always prefaced with the qualifier ‘at least’. The stories I read and heard are such that I would not be able to do them justice in the retelling so I won’t even go there. But if you’re interested, visit the Berlin Wall Foundation’s website. When I have a more stable wifi connection, I’ll upload some images of the Berlin Wall Memorial to the gallery (I’m on the train from Leipzig to Strasbourg as I write).
Also in Prenzlauer-Berg is Mauer Park (mauer is German for wall) is today a recreational park and next to it a sports stadium. Part of the wall of the stadium is original wall and today a canvas for graffiti artists (I’ll pop some photos in the gallery).
While wandering the streets of Prenzlauer-Berg and the Wall, I happened across a number of giant photographs that have been painted on the sides of buildings (mostly apartment blocks), including one very famous one. These photos illustrate the impact the Wall had on the residents who lived in those buildings (or adjacent buildings since destroyed) between 1961 and 1989 - a neighbourhood artificially divided overnight.
To finish off my Prenzlauer-Berg tour I visited Alltag in der DDR - a museum dedicated to everyday life in the DDR. Objects, videos interviewing people (young and old - very interesting the difference), working life, fashion, food, sport, pastimes, you name it. The ‘Trabi’ car (a small two-stroke car that reminded me of a Datsun we had in my childhood) with a tent on top was the highlight for me! Apparently, most of the Trabi’s made in the DDR went straight to market in Russia, so in their heyday the joke in Germany was you ordered a Trabi as soon as you child was born so that it would arrive by his or her 18th birthday.
Highlights from the rest of the day.
Before leaving Prenzlauer-Berg for the rest of the day… currywurst and pomme frittes at the best currywurst restaurant (a van) in Berlin! You have to have it at least once (but once was enough).
The Jewish Museum - everything, including the architecture, has meaning and I wouldn’t do it justice trying to put it into words. A must see if you’re planning a visit to Berlin - the spaces, and how they invite visitors to experience them, touch something within.
The Topography of Terrors - one of Berlin’s newest museums, the Topography of Terrors is built on the site of a former Gestapo prison (only recently excavated) where interrogation was the norm and if execution didn’t follow, then a sentence in one of the many death camps usually did. Some (very few) lived to tell their stories, and those stories are not for the faint-hearted. However, they tell of unparalleled courage and resilience as most who found themselves in the (secret) Gestapo prison, were German resistance, plotting against Hitler at their own peril (including some who attempted to assassinate him). Another must-see.
The Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester - four pieces conducted by Vladimir Jurowski, including the Concerto for Cello and Orchestra No.2 by Dmitri Shostakovich. This piece featured Ivan Karizna on cello and he played the 33 minute concerto from memory. Again, I had absolutely amazing seats - to the left of, in line with, first violin, the conductor and Ivan Karizna when he was on stage. Just wonderful to watch (and remarkable to hear) and they finished the night with my favourite composer, Prokofiev. Not all Russians did/do bad.
Having left at 8:00am I was brushing my teeth at 11:30pm… but what a day!