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Continuing the story

This is part 2 in a mini-series, describing my recent vacation trip to the Baltic region. If you missed part 1, or need a recap, you can find it here.

In this installment, we begin with an excursion into Berlin, with a stop along the way at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. I should warn, this portion contains a dose of history from the World War II era that can weigh heavily. Concentration camps are not happy places.

As before, the photos in this diary are hosted on flickr. You can click on any of the images to view a higher resolution version directly from flicker.

Please join me below the orange kroissant for more.

Preparing for our first port of call

Part 1 ended with this image:


Our cruise ship, the Celebrity Constellation, had pulled away from the dock at Amsterdam at 4:30PM on Wednesday. The time on the TV screen above is 7:03AM on Friday, which is about an hour and a half before scheduled arrival in Warnemunde, Germany. So in the meantime, we had been at sea on Wednesday evening, and all day Thursday. The voyage takes us northward around the tip of Denmark via the North Sea, then past Norway and Sweden, down to Germany. The North Sea can be rough, but on our sailing, the seas were very calm pretty much all the way.

For many people, the reason to cruise is to travel to different destinations, and see what is to be seen at each port of call along the way. There are pros and cons to this way of seeing the world. You get the convenience of being able to unpack once, and stay in a hotel for several nights (if you think of a cruise ship as a moveable hotel). Each day when you wake up, you are somewhere new. But, the itinerary is very rigid; for most ports, you arrive some time in the morning, and leave in the afternoon or early evening. There just isn't time available to see much other than highlights, crammed together with perhaps a few thousand other people from your ship and others. You need to be OK with crowds and a one-size-fits-all agenda.

At each port, you have four basic options:

1) Stay on board, and enjoy having the hotel to yourself and a few other like-minded passengers. Use the pools, hot-tubs, gym, spa, etc., in peace and quiet. Julie your Cruise Director (sorry, wrong ship) will have activities already planned in case you get bored for something to do.

2) Leave the ship, and do your own thing: take a bus or taxi to some place you've read about, find a local restaurant to eat what the locals eat, shop, etc.

3) Leave the ship, and join up with a third-party excursion independent of the cruise line.

4) Leave the ship, and join up with an excursion marketed by the cruise line. These are operated by third-parties, but approved by and working with the cruise line.

On this voyage, the four of us (Partner and myself, and our two friends) had chosen the cruise line's approved excursions. Weeks and months ahead of time, you can browse the various offerings online, make your choices, book and pay for them in advance. That's what we did. Or you can wait until you are on board, and join the line up at the Excursions desk to see what's still available at the last minute. We are advance planners; we like to have everything arranged well ahead of time.

When the "all aboard" time comes at the end of the stay in port, you had better be on board. If you are doing your own thing ashore, and you don't get back in time, odds are pretty good the ship is not going to wait, and you will be left behind. If you are on an excursion marketed by the cruise line, and are late because of a problem with a tour bus or train, your chances improve greatly that the ship will wait.

Warnemunde has some interesting things going on, but the big prize for many tourists is its relative proximity to Berlin. In fact, in promotional materials, the cruise line describes this stop as Warnemunde/Berlin. If you look at a map, Berlin is actually a considerable distance inland. By rail, it's almost a three-hour ride away. Counting travel time there and back, that's 6 hours on a train, cutting into whatever time you might have to see Berlin itself. The scheduled dock time in Warnemunde is 9:30AM to 11:59PM, and you need to be back on board by 11:45PM.

Nevertheless, several different excursions to Berlin are offered and promoted. They vary by the specific sights seen in Berlin and along the way.

Are you going to just yammer all day? I've got other diaries to read

Alright, I'll get on with it.

Long before the start of the trip, the four of us settled on a Berlin rail excursion, via the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. We all wanted to see and learn about these infamous remnants of the Nazi era.

As it turned out, several hundred other passengers also chose to go to Berlin, on various sub-packages offered. The tour operator had this chartered train ready for us to board, and begin the journey:


We didn't have to walk far from the ship to board the train. From the window on the other side, the ship is right here:


Convenient. I guess when you charter a whole train, you can get it to park right next to the ship.

The four of us boarded, and settled into a compartment for five. In North America, we think of trains as having rows of seats, somewhat like an airplane. But from watching movies, we've seen those European trains that have a long aisle along one side next to the windows, and then a series of compartments that can be curtained off. This was one of those.

It was also a hot day: sunny, and over 90F. We were told in advance that the train was not air conditioned. By the end of the day, we would be very much aware of that. At least the windows opened.

After riding for about 2.5 hours, some of it fast, some of it slow and lurching, the train pulled into a station. From there, we transferred to tour buses for the ride to Sachsenhausen, about 40 minutes away. The train continued on with other passengers going directly to Berlin.

Sachsenhausen concentration camp

Established in 1936, Sachsenhausen was located in the town of Oranienburg, about 30km from Berlin. Its primary purpose was the detention of political prisoners, many of them Soviet. Barracks to house Jewish prisoners were added some time later. Sachsenhausen is often referred to by holocaust scholars as a concentration camp, rather than a death (or extermination) camp. The distinction is that the former was for mostly political prisoners, sent there to be tortured, punished, and/or put to work as slave labor. The latter was for mass executions; many, many Jews in particular were rounded up and sent to the death camps.

However, the death toll at Sachsenhausen increased when a gas chamber and crematorium was added in 1943.

The administrative group for all of the concentration camps was located at Oranienburg, and thus Sachsenhausen was used by the Nazis for the development of many of their techniques for torture and death. SS officers were routinely trained at this location before being dispatched to the hundreds of other concentration and death camps.

Sachsenhausen was "liberated" by the Soviets in 1945, but they continued with their own rounds of atrocities all the way to 1950. Thousands more people died under the hands of the Soviets even after WWII was long ended.

Not much is left of the original camp today. Nearly all the buildings were destroyed; a small handful have been recreated for the purpose of being a museum and memorial. What is there now, is chilling.

Here's the entrance to the memorial site. The camp itself is further within.


As you walk the perimiter toward the main entrance of the camp, this wall reminds you of some of the prisoners, why they were there, and of the atrocities committed behind this wall:


Even amidst all this horror and destruction, nature has a way of showing its beauty.


Turning the corner past the wall, and crossing a short plaza, you come upon the main entrance. This would be what the prisoners saw as they were marched into camp for the first time:


As we approached the main gate, our guide pulled shut a portion of the gate to show the wording that is a permanent part of the wrought iron:


"Labour makes you free". Well, no. There was no freedom for the 200,000 people marched through this gate from 1936 to 1945. There was only horror, and death.

At the opposite end of the compound, visible between two trees in the photo above, is an obelisk. This is a memorial to the Nazi political prisoners, and has 18 red triangles on each side. Prisoners wore triangles in colors representing their "status": red for political prisoners, pink for homesexuals, yellow for Jews, and so on. Interestingly, the layout of the camp itself is also a triangle, with one point being across the grounds from the main entrance, just beyond the obelisk.

Sachsenhausen had a higher proportion of gay prisoners than any of the other camps. This was because of its closeness to Berlin, which had been a popular place for gays in the years leading up to the rise of Nazi power. Think of the movie Cabaret, set in 1931 Berlin.

Here's a closer look at the obelisk from inside:


Also from inside, looking back at the main gate:


The outer walls of the camp were about 3 metres high, draped with barbed wire described as being electrified. A gravel "neutral zone" adjacent to the walls carried a simple rule: walk there, and you will be shot without warning. Guards who shot and killed prisoners in the neutral zone could be given credit in the form of extra leave. Prisoners who crossed that line often did so with the intention of suicide.


Another view. I believe this portion of the barbed wire and the neutral zone is a recreation; the entire camp is not surrounded this way today, and most of that original installation would have been destroyed.


Looking across the compound, the direct opposite view from where the previous photo was taken. This open space was called the roll call area, where prisoners gathered in lines to be counted, twice a day. The open spaces beyond where the people are walking, was occupied by barracks: housing for the prisoners.


Here we can see Barracks 38 and 39. These were not part of the original camp, but added in 1938. These barracks, and several others nearby, were mostly used to hold Jewish prisoners, until most of the surviving ones were sent to Auschwitz for extermination in 1942. These buildings are not original, though were recreated partly with original materials, as museums. In 1992, the buildings were significantly damaged by fire, in an arson attack by Neo-Nazis. They were rebuilt again after that, with some of the fire-damaged structure left as is, protected by plastic and glass panels.


A slightly closer view. Here you can see a number of rectangular patches of gravel. These are actual outlines of original barracks buildings. All of the barracks locations are outlined this way, and the two buildings pictured here are the only ones standing today as recreated.


More of the rectangular gravel footprints of the barracks:


Below we see the shoe testing track. This track consisted of 9 different textures of surface, most of them harsh. Prisoners were forced to walk the track, all day long, sometimes as much as 40km in a single day, testing new shoes. Apparently the homosexual prisoners were often singled out for this brutal treatment. And the SS added another tortuous twist in 1944: prisoners would walk in shoes that were too small for their feet, carrying 20-kilo sacks of sand.


Visitors look down into the so-called execution trench. Many thousands of prisoners, most of those Soviet, were shot here. The umbrellas held by some are not due to rain; this was a very sunny, and very hot day.


A view of the execution trench looking back from the opposite direction.


I want to cry when I see this simple memorial wall. It makes you pause and think about the lives that were destroyed here.


And just to the left of those words, this statue:


Very close by, a portion of what is left of the ovens:


Some thoughts on the experience

You may be familiar with these words:

   First they came for the communists,
    and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist.

    Then they came for the socialists,
    and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a socialist.

    Then they came for the trade unionists,
    and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.

    Then they came for me,
    and there was no one left to speak for me.

These are the words of Reverend Martin Niemöller. He actually wrote a number of variations on these words over the years, with different references to religious sects, including the Jews. Early on, he had (allegedly) been a supporter of Hitler, but became disillusioned and then outspoken against the Nazis. He was arrested in 1937 for the crime of "not being enthusiastic enough about the Nazi movement". He spent time in both Sachsenhausen and Dachau until being released by the Allies in 1945. Niemöller was among many prominent individuals who suffered at Sachsenhausen.

This is a significant place in history. I could write so much more about the brickworks outside the camp grounds where prisoners were used as slave labor, or the massive counterfeiting operation that pressed artistic prisoners into making fake U.S. and British currency in an attempt to undermine those nations' economies. It goes on and on. But I need to get back to the thrust of this diary as a travelogue.

It is heartbreaking to ponder all the atrocities that went on at Sachsenhausen, and the hundreds of other camps like it. On the extremely hot day that we were there, and especially when touring inside the buildings, I found myself with this thought: why am I grumbling about the heat and sun exposure, surrounded by these memories of true horrors that hundreds of thousands of my fellow humans experienced on this very ground?

Sobering thoughts. I promise to never forget.


We boarded the buses to continue the trip into Berlin itself. Among the first major sightings was the Brandenburg Gate, one of the most well-known landmarks in all of Germany. Its initial incarnation was completed in 1791 as an entrance to the city. It sustained considerable damage during WWII, but was restored to grandeur from 2000 to 2002.

Post WWII, Germany was divided into East (Stalinist) and West (capitalist). In 1961, the Berlin Wall was constructed by the East, physically dividing the city. The Brandenburg Gate became a rallying point and global focus on the final breaking of the wall, in 1989/1990.

Here is the famous gate, as it stands today:


As you walk through the gate, you are on a large public plaza. Immediately to the right, is the United States embassy; this building opened in 2008.


Just a few minutes walk from there, you will find the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, also known as the Holocaust Memorial:


This memorial consists of 2,711 concrete slabs, arranged in a grid pattern. They are of varying heights, and the ground they sit on also undulates. The effect is of fairly shallow edges, and canyons in the middle area. It is an eerie feeling to walk the aisles of the grid, somewhat reminiscent of a graveyard.




Controversy erupted in January 2013 when an emerging trend began forming on the gay hookup site Grindr. A number of gay mens' profiles were using the Holocaust Memorial as a backdrop. This is considered by many to be highly disrespectful.

Continuing our tour, we stopped at a segment of the Berlin Wall that is still standing. This is being kept in place as a reminder of what once was. We all remarked that we had a mental image of the wall being much thicker. Here, we see that at least this segment of the wall is a thin strip of reinforced concrete.


Although this doesn't look too intimidating, the wall in earlier times was accompanied by a no-man's land including more chain-link fences, barbed wire, land mines, and other obstacles. Another longer view:


Further along, we stop at the famous Checkpoint Charlie:


This was one of the few crossings through the Berlin wall between East and West. It was famously the sight of a standoff in late 1961, with American and Soviet tanks squared off against each other on opposite sides. Fortunately negotiations calmed the situation, the tanks were withdrawn, and escalation was avoided. I believe the shed pictured is either the original wooden shed, or a recreation of it. In the 1980's, a few years before the Wall itself was torn down, the wooden shed was replaced by a larger metal structure. That structure has since been moved to a museum.

The American influence was and is widely present in West Berlin. Above, we see an example of an American fine dining establishment.


After touring Berlin in what seemed like a whirlwind, our bus dropped us off at the train station. We got back onto our train, and into what I think was the same compartment. It was stifling hot, even with the windows open. Sweat poured from every pore. We chatted quietly on the long ride back to the ship.

Upon our return around 11:30PM, the ship's staff greeted us with cups of ice cold water, and trays of ice cold towels. I mean that literally: the towels were caked with crushed ice. It was a welcoming treat to quickly grab and cool down, before working our way through security and onto the ship. Food service was up and running late that night, as they knew (from experience) that hundreds of hungry passengers would be looking for a meal. We showered, changed clothes, and went up to the buffet. The old time traditional midnight buffet on cruise ships are a relic of the past; they don't do that any more. But on this itinerary, with excursions returning this late, a welcome back meal is always available.

The following day we were again at sea the entire day, en route to the next port of call, Stockholm Sweden. As that sea day wound down, I found this wonderful sunset, over an open but very calm sea. Please join me for part 3, which picks up in Stockholm, to be published in the next couple of days. And also please add your comments; those in part 1 of this series were greatly appreciated.

Until next time ...


Originally posted to lotac on Wed Aug 21, 2013 at 12:31 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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