Five days ago, I couldn’t imagine the wonders I would experience in Berlin. This first stop of the CR experience has been more incredible than I ever imagined.
Dr. P likes to ensure that we all know that Cultural Routes is an experience not a trip; these past few days have truly solidified the experience of CR.
The first big milestone for our experience was being put into our Berlin groups. I was so excited to get to join Lauren, Kynnedi, Harris, Emma and Peter as a part of team Alpha. Throughout these past few days we have shared some truly incredible moments, from getting deep with one another to finding joy and excitement even on rainy days. Having the influence and guidance of these people throughout our journey in Berlin has challenged me and I hope that I have challenged them throughout our time together.
Dining in the Dark
One of the most unique events of our time in Berlin was the experience of having dinner in the dark. The restaurant which allows patrons to enjoy a meal in total darkness created a unique experience for me. My initial response was one of anxiety; I was terrified by the thought of not knowing where I was, what I was eating, and not having the use of one of my senses. It was peculiar to walk into the dining space and feel the same when your eyes were open or closed. I kept my eyes closed for the first half of the dinner as I was afraid of being confronted with the dark reality that lay all around me. As I got used to the experience (I was able find and eat all my food), I found myself opening my eyes. The darkness had become my new normal. I found comfort in going about my usual routine at dinner; however, every aspect of the experience had to be adjusted slightly as reality has changed. I walked out of that dinner with a much better understanding of what it is like to live in the dark.
Finding Light In The Dark
Throughout the city, we have been faced with all of the darkness that has pervaded the history of Berlin. We spent a large portion of our first day as Team Alpha on the grounds of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. This conglomeration of massive stone stelae covers an entire city block and resembles an imposing maze as you walk around the outskirts of this memorial. As you move inwards, however, you understand the truly overwhelming nature of these stones. During this first visit, I stood between two of the largest stelae in the pouring rain; the somber attitude of the weather reflected my feelings during this experience. As I stood there, I couldn’t help the feeling helplessness that overwhelmed me. In the middle of this massive stone structure, there was still no protection from the elements and the rain almost seemed to intensify the deeper into the rows we went. It was interesting to feel so alone and vulnerable in a space that was so full and massive.
The second time we visited this space was just last night. This time, the pitch black encroached into the stones and created the feeling of being trapped and confused. In every direction, the stelae seemed to continue forever and the deep darkness made you wary of every step you took as there was know way of knowing what was around the corners.
It is impossible to have both of these emotions in such a hallowed space and not imagine the people that the memorial honors. It creates a connection between those who visit it today, and the millions of people that it aims to honor in death. It was incredible to get a glimpse of the emotions sparked by darkness that millions of individuals had to live with on a daily basis during the Holocaust.
I imagine that these individuals were shocked by the darkness as well. They tried to live their lives as normally as possible but their world was different, so they lived in the dark, both literally and figuratively. Every second of their futures was unknown as they struggled to survive. They waited–and hoped– for the light to return.
Another period of darkness for Berlin was the time in which the city was split: Soviet East and Allied West. The city was torn apart with the end of the war and the eventual creation of wall separating friends, families, and vital communities throughout the city. In the beginning, however, there was no wall, simply a fence with a screen to ensure that one side couldn’t see the other. This blindness creates the isolation of both parts of the city, and creates division through the community of Berlin for decades.
But the wall came down. The war ended, and eventually in the restaurant, we went back out into the light. The question is: what do you do when the light comes back and you know what happens in the dark?
You make sure the lights don’t go out again.
It happened, therefore it can happen again.
Berlin has done an incredible job of wrestling with its complex history. They let the city see what darkness can do, the lives that are lost or destroyed and the harm that can be done. The most important part of keeping the light alive is letting people understand the darkness. By having memorials throughout the city and remnants of the wall that create emotional responses people are less likely to let the atrocities return.
As I leave Berlin, I can’t help but be impressed by the way this city utilizes its past to create a light for the future. I think they truly embody the idea of preventing repetition of the past through through education and understanding.
I can’t wait to see how Munich plays into our CR journey. We are just one night train ride away from arriving in this new city and beginning a new adventure. Till then!